Government officials blocked his website, so he went over their heads

Mehdi Yahyanejad uses an innovative technology to get past internet censorship in Iran and bring information to poor and isolated communities in Mexico.
Marta Franco/CNET
This story is part of Road Trip 2019, profiles of the troublemakers and trailblazers who are designing our future.

Mehdi Yahyanejad started building things early. While a college student in Tehran, Iran, during the 1990s, he tried to make a satellite dish for the receiver he'd purchased on the black market. Satellite equipment was illegal at the time -- it still is -- and hard to find. So he and a friend made their own DIY dish out of scrap metal in his family's backyard.

"My dad would make fun of me and say, 'Yeah, this is not gonna work,'" he says. His dad was correct: When Yahyanejad finished, the deformed dish couldn't receive a signal at all.

Twenty years later, Yahyanejad laughs as he tells the story, but he never stopped building. Now 44 and a new dad, he lives in Los Angeles and directs NetFreedom Pioneers, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of information and aims to connect communities where internet is limited or government censorship restricts access.

Yahyanejad started NetFreedom in 2012 and four years later launched the organization's main project, called Knapsack (or "Toosheh" in Persian). His system lets Iranians bypass the country's strict internet censorship laws for free by transferring data over satellite TV. The organization started with private financial help from friends, but as it got larger, it's won funding from foundations and received US federal grants. Though people download only the content that NetFreedom selects, packs and broadcasts -- since Toosheh isn't connected to the internet, users can't navigate the internet at will -- Knapsack lets them watch YouTube videos, read documents and listen to music and audiobooks, among other content. They can also navigate websites they wouldn't have access to otherwise, when NetFreedom sends a cached version of the site as part of its daily package.

Now Yahyanejad is taking the technology from heavily censored Iran to rural communities in Mexico where the internet barely exists.

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Mehdi Yahyanejad outside his home in Los Angeles.

Marta Franco/CNET

A simple technology

Neither censorship nor lack of connectivity is new to Yahyanejad.

In his house in Los Angeles, where he keeps a couple of satellite dishes on the patio, he speaks in a warm and heavily accented voice as he remembers his arrival on the West Coast. In 2004, he moved to Palo Alto as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University after completing his Ph.D. in physics at MIT, and he decided not to get internet at home so he could instead "spend the time in the evenings reading books."

But that didn't last long and he ended up using a modem that Stanford had provided to go online. "That was so difficult and so slow!" he recalls. "But back then, that was the experience in most of the world. I just said, 'This can't be the way things work.'"

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A young Yahyanejad in Iran taking an early interest in satellite TV.

Courtesy of Mehdi Yahyanejad

Two years later, he founded Balatarin.com, a Persian-language, Reddit-like news aggregator that became hugely popular in Iran. The Iranian government has repeatedly blocked access to the website, but that didn't stop Yahyanejad from trying to answer a question that kept plaguing him: "Can we bypass internet infrastructure altogether?"

Years later, the answer was Toosheh.

The technology behind Toosheh is surprisingly simple once you see it in person. He showed it to me during a conversation in his office, where the walls are covered in posters about Iran and information freedom and comments from Toosheh users.

Here's how it works: Toosheh users turn to a satellite TV channel that shows a series of slides explaining how to record and extract the files they want. Then, they plug a USB flash drive into the receiver and copy the package. The size of the package is listed on the top left corner of the screen, with the amount of time needed to record the content. For example, a 0.34-gigabyte package may take one hour and 46 minutes to record.

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Toosheh users in Iran record the content they receive via satellite onto a USB stick.

Marta Franco/CNET

Once it's saved, the user transfers it to a laptop or Android phone (iPhones aren't supported) to decode the content through the free Toosheh software. Users can get the software -- the instructions are listed on the TV slides -- via email or by downloading it. Toosheh's website is blocked in Iran, but users can use a VPN or similar tool, which is common in the country and lets users hide their location. Some satellite installers even have the program and directly install it for their customers.

Yahyanejad says the free software has been downloaded close to 700,000 times, though the organization can't track who's shared it offline. He says the responses to a recent phone survey indicated that 5% of Iranians, or almost 3 million people, have already used Toosheh.

Tracing and tracking

Toosheh is difficult to trace and block. The Iranian government can try to jam the content, which causes the information flow to get interfering signals. But the system has a built-in recovery tool that boosts the signal-to-noise ratio when users record for long periods (you can record the same package more than once to cover the information gaps the interferences create). In a situation of civil unrest when the Iranian government may try to slow internet traffic or shut it down completely, Toosheh would still remain a way to receive information.

And since satellite TV has a broad reach, the solution is available even in remote places or impoverished areas.

But being able to bypass censorship doesn't mean the content being shared is necessarily political, controversial or incendiary. And not everyone using it has censorship at top of mind. Some just want to watch viral videos, read educational materials or learn how to use software through interactive tutorials, Yahyanejad says. "Once we launched the project, we realized a lot of the people who are using this are not necessarily using it to get around censorship. They are looking for the type of content that they don't normally see on the internet. They were poor, or they didn't have enough money to pay for it."

Reza -- he doesn't want to use his full name -- is one of those users in Iran. He's 35 years old and works at a corporate call center. He's also blind. During a  phone conversation, he tells me he enjoys movies and documentaries, but is particularly interested in audiobooks.

"The movies, of course, are censored in Iran ... TED talks are censored," Reza says, his frustration coming through in our conversation.

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Yahyanejad explains how NetFreedom's technology works.

Marta Franco/CNET

His reasons for using Toosheh are simple. "The internet price is expensive here, we have low-speed internet connection, the proxies [that allow them to hide their location] are expensive, and the content is mostly not allowed by the government," he says. "For me, as a blind person, it would be hard to find them."

Users like Reza can give feedback to NetFreedom in a variety of ways, including through encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. For example, he's requested BBC's Match of the Day, a football show. "The man [at NetFreedom] who is receiving those messages promised me to help," he says. "I think it will be for next season."

Yahyanejad says NetFreedom gets a lot of heartwarming messages. One rural user said he walked 15 kilometers to a cafe in a small town because it was the only place nearby with internet access, "just so he could send us a message."

The company also heard from a user in Afghanistan (where the satellite signal also reaches) who had lived in Iran before he was deported. "He was just thanking us because this is one of the ways he could see what is going on in the world," Yahyanejad says. "When we hear those messages, it's just so encouraging and makes us feel that we are on the right path."

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An editorial team at NetFreedom selects content for its Iranian audience through user feedback and requests.

Marta Franco/CNET

But finding the right path isn't always easy. Many of NetFreedom's employees come from Iran. Some are refugees living in the United States and their work bypassing censorship makes it risky for them to return to their home country. "A lot of our team members love Iran, and they want to be able to go back to Iran," says Yahyanejad, who believes he would get arrested if he returned to the country.

Another employee who can't go back to Iran is Ahmad Ahmadian, who was arrested in the country as a student activist before escaping to Turkey. After being granted asylum in the US, he joined the organization to help expand Toosheh to other areas.

"Right now I can't go back and visit Iran freely and not be arrested," Ahmadian says. "But I can use my knowledge and my experience here to help my fellow Iranians from here and also other people who are facing a similar situation in other parts of the world."

Three years after Toosheh started, the organization is now taking Knapsack in a different direction: bringing educational materials to schools in indigenous communities in Mexico with limited access to the internet.

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Students share phones at the Siglo XXI Secondary School, where they have access to the content that NetFreedom broadcasts.

Marta Franco/CNET

From Iran to Mexico 

It's a hot May day in Mexico, and Ahmadian is driving on a winding road through the mountains of Oaxaca to the community of Álvaro Obregón in Juchitán de Zaragoza. Sitting next to him is Roberto Alejandro Palacios Ornelas, a 31-year-old technology enthusiast who's passionate about rural development and closing of the digital divide. Palacios is volunteering with NetFreedom to bring Knapsack to the country.

As Palacios' English is limited, and Ahmadian's Spanish is next to nonexistent, they converse with the help of Google Translate for the few hours after meeting in Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport before flying to Oaxaca. Though Ahmadian has traveled the world, it was Palacios' first time on a plane. What they both share is a love for technology, freedom of information and social movements.

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Near a tree in the schoolyard, the only place a phone can get a signal, Roberto Alejandro Palacios Ornelas looks up how to fix one of the school's computers.

Marta Franco/CNET

They started working together months earlier when NetFreedom began running the satellite coverage in North America to reach new areas. Yahyanejad got a message from Palacios, who'd received the Knapsack signal at his home in Mexico City and downloaded and decoded his first package of content. It convinced him to help the group bring the data broadcasting initiative to his country.

"I saw so much potential in the technology," Palacios says, speaking in Spanish. "I said, 'People have to learn about this. We need to reach these areas that need it.'"

Their destination, the Siglo XXI Secondary School, has never had access to the internet. Resources are limited. At times, sheep cross the playground, and the doors remain open so air can filter through the classrooms, which have, at most, a fan to fight the blazing heat. Outside the classes, the indigenous Zapotecan language is used more often than Spanish, which some families barely speak.

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A student uses one the school's few computers.

Marta Franco/CNET

Inside one of the school's three buildings, teachers and administrative staff work at their desks. The kids also use the teachers' room as a computer lab, where they can learn basic computer skills even with no access to the internet. Palacios is dressed in the ironed light blue shirt and long jeans he's picked to visit the school. His clothes are too warm for the weather, but he's respectfully dressed to address the teachers. He's also removed his piercings.

At the school, which serves 86 students, phones can only receive enough data to use WhatsApp and only if you're standing under one of the trees in the schoolyard. (At one point, Palacios goes outside to get a connection so he can find out how he can fix the couple of PCs that are too old to connect to Knapsack.)

Most families in town access the internet on their phones, paying by the hour, whenever they need to. Local businesses also offer internet access through local antennas, but the activity, which amounts to the reselling of a residential internet connection, is banned and penalized by the Mexican Federal Telecommunications Institute, a government agency.

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Ahmad Ahmadian inspects a satellite dish on the roof of the school.

Marta Franco/CNET

Connecting a country

The remoteness of areas like Álvaro Obregón, together with Mexico's limited infrastructure and its vast economic inequality, make connecting the country difficult. A 2013 telecommunications reform sought to boost competency in the field and reduce prices by ending telecom giant Carlos Slim's monopoly. Access has been steadily increasing since then, but it's a slow process, and indigenous populations are particularly affected.

The lack of internet, phone and even radio access across Mexico isn't new. According to a 2017 poll by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI as it's called in Spanish), 71.3 million Mexicans use the internet, or 64% of the population 6 years or older. Just a little bit more than half of all households, 17.4 million, have internet access, but it's unevenly distributed. Only 14% of internet users are in rural areas. In Oaxaca, one of the areas with the largest indigenous populations, even the percentage of urban users is low, at just slightly over 60%.

In March, a group of NetFreedom employees arrived in Álvaro Obregón to install a satellite dish, the other Knapsack equipment and a Wi-Fi network. Then in May, Ahmadian and Palacios visited to check the state of the project. They hope it will be the first of many Mexican schools able to receive educational materials through NetFreedom's technology.

Several organizations besides NetFreedom are also working to bring more of Mexico online. In Oaxaca, a hilly region where some indigenous cultures have survived partly due to the harsh terrain and where many of the towns still haven't fully recovered from an earthquake in 2017, Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (Community Indigenous Networks) has been working for years to bring phone access to isolated communities.

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A notice in the school's computer lab reminds the students of Knapsack's IP address.

Marta Franco/CNET

In Chiapas, a small group of teachers made the news when they managed to connect a village to a community-maintained internet system that amplified a nearby signal. The current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised at multiple events and press conferences to connect the whole country, a project that would take years.

"That project has all my support," said Palacios, during a break from his work making sure that all computers in the room could connect to Knapsack. "But bringing optical fiber to the whole country is going to take a lot of time and effort. Our system is not a pilot. It has been tested, and it works."

In Iran, users record and decode the content themselves. But in Mexico, the process takes place through a content station, or a computer that receives and stores the satellite content and makes it accessible through a local Wi-Fi network. It's not the internet, but the kids get to enjoy a similar experience when they access the materials, which are mostly educational websites.

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Students can then type the IP address into a phone to access Knapsack-provided content.

Marta Franco/CNET

The Siglo XXI school community was skeptical when NetFreedom first approached them. Residents of this town of around 3,500 are still resentful about the arrival of wind power companies in the area in 2011. They feel companies took advantage of the local population by taking their land to install the wind farms without fair compensation. When NetFreedom arrived, the residents doubted that a group of strangers would offer anything for free. What's more, parents were concerned their children would access inappropriate content.

But some of the teachers and administrators saw it as an opportunity and convinced the community to try. The principal of the town's school, Raúl Abarca Santiago, was one of those supporters. "I remember being here with a colleague who was asking me, 'Is this one of those times when we heard promises, and nothing happens?' But I turned around, and they arrived," he tells me in Spanish.

Or as Hedilberto de la Cruz Martínez, the school vice principal, puts it, "This came like falling from heaven."

NetFreedom created QR codes that let kids access the platform through their phones. Scanning the code opens the platform over the Wi-Fi network and shares information that the content station has automatically downloaded and stored. Not all students have a phone, though, so some need to share devices. Other students have just memorized the IP address (192.168.0.8), which they type to access "Knapsack," a word they can't even pronounce.

Needs and challenges 

The organization is now figuring out how to ensure the content it delivers reflects the interests and needs of each community. On his last visit to Álvaro Obregón and between checkups of the computers and satellite dish, Ahmadian asked the students and teachers which kinds of content they'd find useful. For the project in Iran, a dedicated editorial team based around the world puts together a daily package that can be as big as 5 or 6 gigabytes.

Content comes from around 200 publishers and is selected through user feedback and requests. People have asked for Android programming tutorials, elementary school books and philosophy books censored in Iran. Tutorials are also popular for subjects like learning English, photography, fixing laptops and mobile phones, and making candles and soap.

In Mexico, where the audience is new and small -- and NetFreedom is still trying to get the support of the Mexican government -- the organization continues to work with local communities to determine the appropriate educational materials.

Yahyanejad says one of the challenges is understanding the needs of the three countries where it broadcasts. Mexico, Iran and Afghanistan all have different needs.

"The challenges we have in Iran are mostly political and censorship," he says. "In Afghanistan, we have challenges with users who don't have electricity, and some of them can't read. In Mexico, the challenge is remote places with limited access."

He adds, "We constantly have to learn and educate ourselves."

Technology companies like to say they're "making the world a better place." Yahyanejad won't say that about his organization -- at least, not unprompted -- but he hopes its tech will help people in small, remote and isolated areas access content that's normally out of their reach.

"It's hard to know how much change it's gonna bring, but it's bringing a gradual change," he says. "In the long run, it changes the culture, it changes the way people treat each other and the way they also relate to the rest of the world."