How Toronto-based ASL19 is using tech to promote freedom of speech

Having to operate a startup in secrecy isn’t usual for entrepreneurs, but to help a country’s citizens maintain their right to freedom of speech and expression, a Toronto-based startup is willing to take a risk.

Iran is known for frequently blocking the use of online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which prevents citizens from accessing and sharing information with their social network. To tackle the issue of Internet censorship in Iran, ASL19 is developing practical solutions for online access to information. Founder of ASL 19 Ali Bangi sat down with The Disruptors co-host Amber Kanwar to discuss how the company is working with anti-censorship tool developers to help Iranian citizens maintain their right to freedom of speech.

Bangi says when launching ASL19, his team had to make a choice between developing their own anti-censorship tools or using the skills and tools of developers available in North America to achieve their goal. ASL19 decided to work with circumvention tool developers in North America to create websites and apps that allow them to bypass censorship and bring news, data and other censored material to Iranian citizens.

“Being here in North America, we knew a lot of other tools. We established trust and good friendship with them [tool developers], and we decided that we curate and distribute the existing tools we knew of,” said Bangi.

Kanwar says because of Iran’s strict regulations, secrecy is key to ASL19’s operations. The company’s employees have to use fake names and the location of their office is “kept under wraps.” Bangi is one of the few who take the risk of exposing themselves to the Iranian regime and sharing ASL19’s work with the public. Despite their work being dangerous however, ASL19 strives to maintain a strong startup office culture.

“If you go to old school human rights organizations, it’s usually probably in the basement with really bad desk, really old chair that is uncomfortable to sit on,” said Bangi. “We consciously decided to stay away from that as we needed to create a space that is appealing to good software developers.”

For Bangi, the risk that comes with operating a startup in secrecy is worth the reward.

“During election time, the censors put a lot of pressure, but people still manage to come online and they send some tweets. I like reading them that ‘Hey, regardless of all those state resources, we were able to break through the censors and come online,’” said Bangi. “Those are good moments.”

Watch the full interview below:

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Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi is a staff writer at BetaKit. As a fourth-year journalism student who has written primarily about entrepreneurship, Amira has developed a growing interest in Canadian startup, business, and tech news. In her free time, Amira enjoys reading, baking and watching legal shows.