A Pirate Podcast App Takes on Iran’s Hardline Censors

Feb 23, 20170 comments

This article was originally published by Wired.

REZA GHAZINOURI REMEMBERS the importance of pirate radio as a teenager growing up in in the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran. His father tuned in multiple times a day to the banned Farsi version of the BBC transmitted from neighboring countries, to hear the truth about Iranian political scandals like the impeachment of the country’s liberal minister of culture, and the shutdown of dozens of its newspapers. While Ghazinouri studied for his college entrance exams in 2003, he’d listen to the US government-funded Radio Farda coverage of student protests against university privatization. “I still remember those programs so clearly,” Ghazinouri says, “Every night I’d imagine myself protesting like the students.”

Today, Ghazinouri has found his own form of protest. He’s one of the creators of an app that aims to bring the same contraband audio to modern Iran in a revamped form: the pirate podcast. Today he and his fellow activists and coders at the Berkeley-based, Iran-focused app developer IranCubator will launch RadiTo, an audio app for Android uniquely suited to the conditions of the country’s internet. It navigates slow, expensive data connections, users who speak a variety of languages and dialects ignored by most podcast distributors, and trickiest of all, a draconian digital censorship regime. With RadiTo, the group hopes to evade that internet filtering and bring a rare stream of aural information about the outside world to the country’s burgeoning smartphone culture.

Radio Waves

For now, the app works as a kind of digital radio tool, offering banned foreign channels like the BBC, Radio Farda, and Amsterdam-based Radio Zamaneh. But eventually RadiTo, whose name means “Radio You” in Farsi, plans to let anyone create their own podcast channel, serving as a kind of audio-only Iranian YouTube for illicit ideas and entertainment. “This allows individuals to have a platform to broadcast whatever they want to broadcast,” says Firuzeh Mahmoudi, one of IranCubator’s founders and the executive director of its creator United For Iran. “Getting access to radio stations outside the country is imperative, and a platform where individuals can have channels to share information is critical.”


Beyond mere news, RadiTo will offer audio channels devoted to other subjects forbidden in Iran. One show it plans to distribute, called Taboo, has in the last several months devoted episodes to censored topics like pre-marital sex, separatist groups, and the female orgasm. Another show will focus on Iranian mysticism, a controversial topic under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islam. Both shows are run by Iranians living in America; the subjects they cover, after all, are a form of thought crime in Iran. Iran’s digital censorship body, the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, has long blocked all internet content in the country that violates its tight restrictions—everything from political dissent against the country’s hardline regime to cultural content it considers “anti-Islamic.”

RadiTo has a few ideas about how to stay ahead of that filtering. It offers two ways to download RadiTo: both Google Play and trusted Telegram accounts, like the one run by pseudonymous Iranian activist and blogger Vahid Online. Iran doesn’t currently block either method, Ghazinouri says, and since connections to Google Play are encrypted, the Iranian censors can’t easily block downloads of RadiTo without blocking all connections to the Android app store that serves more than 70 percent of the country’s smartphone users. The server that hosts RadiTo’s content, Ghazinouri explains, is hosted on Amazon Web Services and encrypted, which similarly hides its data in a tough-to-block collection of other services. (The encrypted calling and texting app Signal recently used a similar tactic to circumvent blocking of the app in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.)

Censorship and Sensibility

Ghazinouri concedes that the government might still find a way to block the app’s connections by, say, identifying the exact IP range of the app’s Amazon servers, or using deep packet inspection to spot its data in transit. So the group also has a workaround in mind: In the case of a block, it’s ready to push an update to the app via both Google Play and Telegram that would embed a proxy function, routing its data over the Psiphon network, an anti-censorship tool created by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which bounces users’ connections through the computers of volunteers outside Iran. Individual Farsi audio apps from broadcasters like Radio Zamaneh do have their own Android apps, but probably aren’t as well prepared to play the cat-and-mouse game of censorship evasion, argues Ghazinouri. “The Iranian government comes up with new censorship techniques all the time,” says Ghazinouri. “You always have to have a Plan B.”

Iranians can already access some of these services piecemeal, through proxies and other workarounds. But RadiTo on top of censorship circumvention, RadiTo also has features that solve uniquely Iranian problems. Its interface offers not only Farsi and English, but four other Iranian minority languages: Balouchi, Iranian-dialect Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic. And it allows users to download content and listen offline, a crucial setting in a country where a lack of infrastructure and intentional government throttling slows internet speeds to an expensive trickle. “There’s no other Iranian app that offers all this,” says Fereidoon Bashar, an internet activist and developer at the Toronto-based technology lab ASL-19, which is working with IranCubator on future apps for the same market. “It’s accommodating not just the user experience, but also the internet ecosystem that exists in Iran, the limited access to data.”

RadiTo is only the first official launch for IranCubator. In the coming months, it hopes to launch a dozen apps, all tailored for Iranian users and the challenges of Iran’s cloistered internet. Later in February, for instance, IranCubator plans to release a tool called Hamdam, aimed at women’s health education. Hamdam will include a period tracker, information about marriage rights and divorce, and advice about dealing with domestic violence.

IranCubator founder Mahmoudi says she hopes the group’s human-rights focused apps can collectively ride the growing wave of mobile device adoption in Iran, where 40 million people already own smartphones, with a million more added every month. “Iranians are tech-savvy and globally minded. They want to be in a county that’s more democratic and worldly,” says Mahmoudi. “All the indicators are there. Technology is the right tool to engage people where they want to engage.”