How We Created a New Kind of Public Square

Digital diplomacy is conventionally understood as diplomats engaging in international diplomacy through social media. In 2013, the Munk School set out to break that traditional approach. We aimed to create a new online space to facilitate dialogue for people facing extreme censorship and internet access restrictions. This school had already become a world leader in the monitoring and circumvention of political censorship on the Internet. We wanted to push further in this field and create a new public square for people whose political discussion online had been repressed—in this case, for citizens in Iran.

In only three months the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran became a point of access enabling political discussion for hundreds of thousands of Iranians. It opened a digital space for them to engage in dialogue, fostered a very powerful political discussion leading up to their presidential elections, monitored elections updates remotely, provided analysis, and fed citizen reports on elections violations directly back to people inside Iran.

Our experiment in creating this new kind of public square presents scholars, diplomats, and political actors around the world with a new model for engaging in digital diplomacy.

Planning A New Public Square For Iran

With its presidential elections approaching in June 2013, Iran’s political and technical environment provided a strong basis for our experiment in creating space for political dialogue. Iran’s traditional public square was broken. Inside the country, millions were blocked during sensitive political periods from accessing services many consider essential (e.g. YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of daily blogs, news organizations, and communication services). Outside of Iran, a community was spread around the globe with limited access to their country’s political discussion. Between crackdowns on media organizations, and the well-documented eruption of violence during protests, there was no gathering place for the scattered Iranian diaspora and Iranian citizens to engage freely about their country’s future. Accessing information and sharing political ideas can come with serious personal risk for Iranians.

Shortly after the controversial presidential election of June 2009, Iran’s government was rumoured to be slowing all Internet connections to make them virtually unusable. One Iranian expatriate with whom we worked explained the challenges she faces simply sharing photos of her child with relatives inside Iran. Since Facebook isn’t an option for them—given speed restrictions and access issues—email is often the only way to send photos into the country. The first time she tried to send a photo, it took relatives days to download it at home.

An experience at an internet café in Iran can be much worse. Clients must, according to law, disclose their address, telephone number, national identification number, and postal code. Internet cafés log every IP address and website that a client visits, while cameras take pictures. In 2002 Iran’s Internet Police (FETA) announced in early 2012 that owners are responsible for keeping all of this information about their customers.

We saw the 2013 presidential elections as an unprecedented opportunity to bypass those controls and enable open and safe dialogue. Iran was charged for vibrant debate. Toronto, and Canada more broadly, is home to one of the largest communities of Iranian diaspora in the world. And the Munk School had a history of developing the kinds of technologies capable of opening access to a new digital public square for Iranians—both inside and outside Iran.

Supported by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (then known as the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, or DFAIT), the Munk School of Global Affairs would begin by hosting a two-day dialogue from Toronto, joining Iranian expatriates here to Iranians inside Iran and around the world, to debate key issues facing the country in the upcoming elections.

Building the New Public Square

Our vision for the public square was quite simple. The Global Dialogue would start with a two-day session hosted from Toronto on May 10th and 11th, 2013. We would work with the Canadian government to physically convene a broad group of expatriate Iranians at the Munk School on those days. Each one of those delegates would have mobilized her or his political network inside Iran to join our meeting from inside Iran, via the Internet. Since diaspora do not tend to represent the full breadth of political debate back home, we would also put the invitation out more broadly to as many Iranians as possible—inviting them all to join in that discussion, via the Internet, from wherever they were.

Once the two-day session ended, we would continue hosting Iran’s digital public square until the election itself.

There are two parts to building that kind of a digital public square: Building the technology to support an open public discussion in live time across borders and around network restrictions imposed by the Iranian government; and two, gathering the network of participants who will lead that discussion in our sessions and after them. Of those, creating the digital technology was surprisingly straightforward – and the tools can be produced and easily redeployed in Iran and elsewhere. Incubating a discussion in an environment filled with apprehension was much harder, and provided important lessons for future exercises of this nature.

The Technology

The key to building the square itself—a digital equivalent of the Agora in ancient Athens— was a comprehensive deployment of popular social media channels, combined with the support of internet circumvention software originally developed to help people around the world evade their own governments’ attempts to censor the Internet.

At the heart of our digital public square would be a web-site, serving as a single hub for access to debate and discussion on Iranian politics, in both Farsi and English. All of our other social media tools would point Iranians to that hub, and lead from that hub. The website would be our first point of contact for people tuning in from inside Iran. How would Iranians behind access controls even gain access to the platform we were building? The answer was Psiphon.

Psiphon Screenshot

Born and originally developed at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab, Psiphon software is now run by a privately held company based in Toronto, which provides the open-source software freely to people around the world who want to bypass their severely censored networks. Users simply install the desktop or mobile versions, and can instantly connect with Psiphon’s powerhouse of global servers for completely unfiltered access to the Internet.

In partnership with Psiphon, beginning a few days before the conference, Global Dialogue’s hub was the first site Iranian users were directed to when activating their circumvention software. Not all Psiphon users go online for political purposes, of course; many just want to check Facebook or e-mail friends without government interference. And so our designers focused on making the Global Dialogue’s hub site engaging for all comers, whether or not they’d been planning to take an interest in political conversation that day. In tandem, we prepared a system able to roll out secure servers around the world on the fly; ready to respond to high levels of traffic or a malicious attempts to bring the entire hub down.

The Network
It’s hard enough to steward a constructive political discussion in free societies that encourage them. Engaging people facing severe censorship and access restrictions is much harder –especially when the discussion is being coordinated from a base more almost ten thousand kilometres away from its epicentre.

This is where we benefited from convening expatriate Iranians in Toronto and around the world, with support from the Canadian government. Each potential participant from the diaspora community represented not only themselves, but an important network of people and contacts. They all brought with them the capability to draw diverse Iranian voices into the greater discussion.

But diaspora communities do not necessarily represent the breadth of political thinking at home, and we were acutely aware of the gaps we could not fill through the network we had invited to Toronto. We prepared “action documents” in Farsi and English, which we sent to Persian media and networks, telling anyone how they could connect their personal networks into the Global Dialogue.

Every new person invited to our digital public square represented both a potential victory for open political discussion, and a potential risk. If word spread too soon, the Iranian Government—or a potential enemy of the initiative—would have time try to block or attack it via a “distributed denial of service” (DDOS) attack; a commonly used method of slowing or paralyzing websites by overwhelming their servers with requests.

Indeed, one week before our conference, Iranians trying to use circumvention programs to access the web suddenly found that their connections to the internet shut down 60 seconds after they were established. Users spent hours trying to download a single webpage. Fortunately, Psiphon was one of the only software platforms still getting through—and the Psiphon team in Toronto was developing a new version of the software to evade the Iranian government’s latest blocking technique.

 

Opening The Public Square

At 9 am on May 10th, 2013, we launched a new kind of digital public square for Iran. Delegates in Toronto opened our two-day session discussing a range of topics relevant to Iran’s upcoming presidential election. Participants from inside Iran could join using a whole portfolio of social media and meeting platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Google Moderator. Those tools would allow Iranians anywhere to contribute to the discussion in live time, and vote on questions on any topic—anonymously, if they wished.

Photo of a woman asking a question with a camera in focus shooting the first Global Dialogue event

From Toronto, Iranians were live tweeting and live blogging our discussions in Farsi and English; and we broadcast simultaneous translations in both languages through an in-house online radio channel,for Iranian users with slow Internet speeds. A video crew connected multiple cameras to Google Hangouts and hosted webcasts on YouTube for every panel discussion. YouTube’s servers ensured networks around the world could share the content without being overwhelmed by heavy traffic or a cyber-attack. Networks like Balatarin, an established Persian language news site, used the webcast feed from the Global Dialogue to broadcast the conference to thousands of their daily Iranian viewers.

Then it started to happen. Our online platform had questions coming in not only from around the world, but crucially, from inside Iran. By the end of the first day, tens of thousands of users were connecting with our site from inside Iran. Psiphon’s new circumvention software was working. Indeed, it appeared to be the only circumvention software still bridging Iranian internet users to the outside world that day. Iranians who’s Internet connection wasn’t fast enough to watch or listen to the conversation in live time could follow us through tweets embedded on the Global Dialogue homepage. Our strategy was not to force users onto any particular channel, but rather to invite them into the conversation through whichever channel served their needs best.

Shot of a man sitting at his desk watching the Global Dialogue video stream

In two days, Iranians inside Iran used the public square we had opened for them from Toronto to discuss a wide range of topics freely, including the economy, political participation, defending rights and diversity, diplomacy, and equality for women. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one of the most vibrant sessions focused on access to information and sanctions— topics crowd-sourced from the online audience.

A few days after the conference, we had a solid read on the staggering results: nearly 150,000 users had accessed the Global Dialogue since the start the conference. They spent an average of more than seven-and-a-half minutes on the website; for rough comparison, nearly four times what Canadians have been known to spend on a political website during an election campaign. The public square continued to balloon after the launch event: within two weeks, more than 360,000 unique users had connected with the Global Dialogue from inside Iran, and had visited the site over 1,490,000 times.

The Next Step

Turning A Public Square Into A Digital Elections Monitoring Centre
With the Iranian presidential election fast approaching, and election monitors barred from Iran, we decided to use our newly created digital platform as an Elections Monitoring Centre (EMC). Our aim was to gather data from inside the country, and analyze everything available with researchers who have expertise in both access issues and elections monitoring. All of the work was broadcast via the Global Dialogue hub into Iran during and after the election itself.

We asked users connecting with Global Dialogue from inside Iran to report on their own elections directly. Nabz-Iran, or “Pulse of Iran”—an organization that seeks to amplify Iranian voices and draw attention to the cause of human rights in Iran—developed online forms for Iranians to use in reporting election violations, along with Farsi-language handbooks, which were shared through the Global Dialogue site. In addition, Nabz-Iran jointly hosted an election violations map with us that plotted elections violation reports from inside the country.

To put our users’ reports in a robust context, we also leveraged new expertise. ASL19, an interdisciplinary lab in Toronto that helps Iranians bypass Internet censorship, joined us to oversee a team of Iranians aggregating news, social media reports on the election, and to provide constant analysis. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a Washington D.C. non-profit organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government—would send elections analysis specialists to support the EMC and provide independent expert analysis.

NDI’s pre-election statement explained the historical reality of Iranian elections: “Past elections in Iran have failed to clearly demonstrate the country’s adherence to democratic principles… Though citizens could vote, the process left many with the impression that the outcome was manipulated, at best, or pre-determined, at worst.” The 2013 election, too, seemed to be controlled from the start—the report noted candidates had been vetted in advance and potential contestants disqualified for arbitrary reasons.

June 14th: Election Day
This time, Iranian authorities succeeded in slowing users’ connections to our sites—and the internet at large—to an almost unusable crawl.

We proceeded anyway. Iranian panelists joined us to cover the election on a live webcast that we hoped could be seen inside Iran—and that incorporated questions sent to us by our online community around the world. ASL19’s 24-hour research team produced reports of the daily news and monitored the social media sphere for updates. Those whose connections were too slow for video or audio could, once again, follow our analysis on twitter and through blog posts on our website.

Photo of a panel with a man and woman discussing election issues

Shortly after Iranian media declared Hassan Rouhani—considered a moderate and arguably the Ayatollah’s least favoured candidate—the winner, Internet access from inside Iran accelerated and our visitors began surging. Weeks later Iran’s minister for communications and information technology, Mohammad Hassan Nami, would publicly admit to Iran’s speed restrictions. “The reduction of the Internet speed, which some called ‘disturbances’, was the result of security measures taken to preserve calm in the country during the election period,” said Nami. To everyone’s surprise, he went further and stated it was an attempt to prevent “foreigners trying to disrupt the election process” through the country’s cyberspace.

During the week after the presidential election, the Munk School’s Elections Monitoring Centre continued its research. And Iranians were able to access complete reports, social media roundups, and uncensored analysis of the entire election. By July 1st, 2013, the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran had been visited by citizens inside the country more than 2 million times.

Rethinking Digital Diplomacy

Roland Paris, in his paper “The Digital Diplomacy Revolution: Why Canada is Lagging Behind”, defines digital diplomacy as: “…In its broadest formulation, any use of digital communications for the purposes of international diplomacy, but more commonly it refers to the use of social media by diplomats and foreign ministries.”

We believe that definition is too limited. Our experience creating a public square for citizens inside Iran, from a base in Toronto, challenges us to understand digital diplomacy well beyond the constraints of traditional diplomacy: As a digital space where citizens themselves engage in the kind of diplomacy and political debates that would otherwise be impossible.

The Global Dialogue presents an opportunity to explore a new model for digital diplomacy realized as space for open political discussion. For diaspora communities, it can create new spaces to participate in the domestic politics of their homelands. For official diplomats, it presents an opportunity to connect with citizens directly as they craft their own internal debates.

For scholarly centres like the Munk School, digital diplomacy presents an opportunity to deploy theory into practice, to open political discussion around the world, and to experiment with tools and platforms that empower citizens in their own national debates.

Some names in this article have been changed or withheld upon request to secure their original identity.

Originally Published: Fall 2013, Munk Monitor, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Notes for Reference

  • Sean Willett led the creation of the inaugural Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran’s digital diplomacy platform.
  • Read: Opennet Initiative. “After the Green Movement: Internet Controls in Iran, 2009-2012.” February, 2013. https://opennet.net/sites/opennet.net/files/iranreport.pdf: Page 17
  • Read: New Democratic Institute. “Iran’s June 14, 2013 Elections.” June 12 2013. http://munkschool.utoronto.ca/ media/2013/06/NDI-Iran-Election-Statement-12-June-2013.pdf: Page 1
  • Read: Radio Free Europe Radio Library. “Iran Admits Throttling Internet To ‘Preserve Calm’ During Election.” June 26, 2013. http://www.rferl.org/content/iran-internet-disruptions-election/25028696.html
  • Read: Roland Paris, “The Digital Diplomacy Revolution: Why Canada is Lagging Behind.” June 2013. http:// www.cdfai.org/PDF/The%20Digital%20Diplomacy%20Revolution.pdf