Free Open Source in Iran
Around a month ago, I ¨met¨ the Iranian Mehrdad Memeny (mtux) in identica: he happened to mention he lives in Mashhad and I replied I would be there in about a month. ¨Wow¨ he said, and we agreed it would be nice to meet then. Mehrdad is the developer of several free open source software (FOSS) applications: Choqok, a client for Twitter and Laconica installations like identi.ca; Bilbo, a blogging application; and MDic, an international dictionary. All three run on Linux. We exchanged some dents every now and then, but the idea of meeting didn´t come up again (though neither of us forgot).
Once contact with mtux had been made, I gradually noticed other Iranian people on identi.ca involved with FOSS one way or another: as developer, contributor or simply a user. Having been in Iran before, and knowing that the government is filtering some websites (the situation is very like that in China), I began to wonder about the Open Source scene in Iran.
Then something else came up: Mostafa Davanesh (mostafada) pointed to a blogpost of his: Farewell Fedora Project. In short, he´s been contributing to and promoting Fedora for years, but every time he downloads a new source distribution, he´s faced with a notice about US export regulations, forbidding export of the software to countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba (there are more on the list). He felt he could no longer continue to contribute if for doing that he had to do something illegal; he completely cut all ties with the Fedora Project and declared he will not even discuss it any longer.
While I realize that not everyone would feel the same (some would just download from a different repository, one in Europe, for instance), his story rather shocked me: officially, at least, Iranians who want to take part in the international FOSS ecosystem are between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand they have the Iranian equivalent of the Chinese Great firewall, on the other hand US export regulations that forbid export of software (including downloading Free Open Source Software): free software isn´t as free as we tend to think. Thus I got the idea of using my visit to Iran to not only see bazaars and interesting historical and religious sites, but also find out more about the reality of FOSS in Iran - in spite of a very crowded itinerary: to me, at least, present-day culture is just as important in a cultural trip as ¨old stones¨. Gradually I made contact with other Iranians on identi.ca, but alas our schedule would allow only enough time for a meet-up in Mashhad, where mtux and a number of the others live. Mehrdad was kind enough to organize the meet-up and so in the evening of 21 May, four young Iranians, all members of the Mashhad Linux User Group, came to meet me in the reception area of our hotel (I easily recognize mtux from his avatar on identi.ca).
Mashhad meet-up, in the hotel lobby — from left to right: Mehrdad, Majid, me, Mohammad and Morteza
After introductions (and some inquiries about my trip), we start in earnest and I explain about first meeting mtux and mostafada´s blogpost which gave me the focus for this meeting. I ask the group how they feel about these US export regulations combined with their own government´s filtering, how they handle it.
Mehrdad (23, self-assured, a fashionable little goatee) explains they´re not really bothered by it; mostly, they don´t see these declarations at all, and anyway the can use mirrors to download from, or proxy servers to get around blocks.
Majid (23, small, a little goatee) adds that with respect to site filtering, two sites are important for Open Source, both from Google: the Google code repository and Google Pack, Google's collection of free (gratis) software (though not all of it is free open source). This is where they use proxy servers: for those who know their way around it´s easy to get around the blocks.
Morteza (at 22 the youngest of the group, no facial hair) adds that Sun doesn´t just display a declaration about the export regulations (the usual method), but itself actively blocks access from Iran: the whole Sun domain is not accessible to them. That would exclude a lot of important software like Java, MySQL, OpenOffice.org and VirtualBox. But they can still get it all from repositories that are not under the Sun domain.
A remark from Morteza sparks off a discussion about what it means to contribute to OSS: Mehrdad is the most active of the group, actually developing his own software. But ¨contributing¨ doesn´t only mean adding code, which Morteza admits he doesn´t do much of; testing, translating into a local language like Farsi, and writing end-user documentation are all very important. For instance, with the upgrade of KDE 3.4 to KDE 4.2 there was a bug which no one in Iran could fix or work around, because of a lack of documentation in Farsi. Mohammad (24, long and lean) adds there are other ways of being active: they also actively promote OSS in Iran, and for instances give presentations at the University about OSS.
The OSS community in Iran is small but rather tight, and many know each other personally. Recently, there was an Ubuntu release party in Tehrān: people came from all over the country, from Esfahān, from Mashhad, etc. to Tehrān to take part and catch up with each other. Having such a close-knit community also means that when a proxy server disappears, or new ones or new mirrors appear, word about them spreads fast in the community.
Travel is another topic that comes up: naturally Iranians are envious of us Westerners who can freely travel around the world. Some Iranians manage to get a stipend to study at a University elsewhere, but that is mostly Europe, as the US is very hard for them to get into. But at the same time it is also harder for Americans to travel to Iran than for Europeans (though it´s not clear to me whether that is due to regulations by the US government, the Iranian government, or both). But there is nothing at Universities here to make it attractive to Westerners to study here, they tell me.
At Mohammad´s suggestion we all go to a hyper modern ¨no sugar added¨ juice bar - I try a banana and wheat grass smoothie which turns out to be delicious (and not something you can get at the usual street corner juice shops in Iran). Here we continue our chat and other subjects than OSS come up. Such as the fact that popular commercial software is also very easy to get here (¨copyright means almost nothing in Iran¨, says one of them): you can get a CD with Windows for about one dollar. ¨Just like in China¨, I add (they all laugh), but I´m silently wondering whether a restrictive regime may actually have something to do with this: when there are restrictions maybe more people will actively try to get around them — or avoid them altogether by finding their own solutions?
Another example I found out about while researching the situation in Iran was Cloob, an Iranian "Virtual Society" website, for which development started when Orkut (another Google site) was filtered by the Iranian Government. When I ask my hosts why they actually develop their own Open Source Software, even for things like blogging, for which there is already so much available, Majid´s answer comes fast and clear: ¨Because Freedom matters¨. It does. And thus, in a convoluted way, the restrictions they meet here actually result in a small community actively creating their own freedom. It´s just a real shame they have to use means like mirrors and proxy servers to be able to contribute to the international OSS ecosystem - or else, like Mostafa Davanesh, refuse to do ¨illegal¨ things and drop out completely.
2009-06-21 Update: A different story about our meet-up (more on the social and cultural aspects) can now be found on my Travel Blog.