Iranian bitcoiners are showing the world what censorship resistance really looks like.
Starting last weekend, Microsoft’s GitHub started identifying and banning Iranian accounts based on U.S. trade restrictions. As such, blockchain developers are hindered from participating in software projects that include private repositories or paid services for commercial ventures.
“The majority of serious crypto/blockchain projects that are being developed by companies around the world are hosted under the hood [in private repositories],” Behrad Khodayar, CTO of the Iranian blockchain startup Behkame and co-founder of a cryptocurrency exchange in stealth mode, told CoinDesk. “So, when it comes to developers from banned countries, this recent restriction by GitHub will have a major effect on their professional lives and whether they can join such world-class companies.”
Some of these restrictions are even mistakenly applied to Iranian expats who reside in Europe or North America. This was also the case with remote collaboration services like Slack, which started limiting Iranian developers’ ability to participate in global networks back in December 2018.
A GitHub spokesperson told CoinDesk:
“Certain GitHub services may be available for free individual and free organizational GitHub.com accounts in these countries or territories [but] for personal communications only, and not for commercial purposes.”
This restriction on some GitHub functionalities has already impacted crypto projects. For example, Khodayar said his team lost access to TradingView’s code for drawing charts and technical indicators related to his team’s upcoming exchange.
“We also don’t have access to new documentation created by [TradingView’s] team, so we try to work around the problem by directly reading the code and using a trial-and-error technique,” Khodayar said.
Khodayar previously used the peer-to-peer exchange LocalBitcoins to buy and sell cryptocurrency. In May, that service started banning Iranians too. Sources in Tehran told CoinDesk some bitcoin traders still use the site by posting offers under other country’s pages, although they expect to completely lose access to the site any day. Still, Iranian sources tell CoinDesk that interest in bitcoin has grown, not faltered.
One such Iranian bitcoiner who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amirhossein, said he lost access to Slack months ago but hasn’t yet been flagged by GitHub. He uses the site to work on an Iranian bitcoin exchange, filling the gap left by LocalBitcoins, and to contribute bitcoin reward features to a video game, working as the gaming studio’s freelance developer. (He requested anonymity in order to protect these jobs.)
Speaking of political censorship for civilian use of public sites, Amirhossein told CoinDesk he’s not worried because he prepares in advance for such scenarios:
“I usually use nicknames and random handles so on occasions like this they can’t identify me. If [censorship] can happen, it will happen.”
Twitter is full of bitcoiners hypothesizing what would happen if governments restrict access to bitcoin and basic internet services. Iranians are facing these challenges today.
Several Iranian sources told CoinDesk they are still able to comment on and contribute to public Bitcoin Core projects on GitHub, however, since the restriction only impacts private repos and paid services.
Plus, Wladimir van der Laan, the lead maintainer of bitcoin’s most widely used software, broadcasts bitcoin-related git repositories on a hidden Tor service so anyone can view them. Iranian developers are already showing how bitcoiners can participate in the global community despite censored access to some of the most popular portals for collaboration.
For starters, Khodayar said the recently secured regulatory approval for Iranian bitcoin mining enterprises could help boost access. This didn’t happen organically. Many members of the local bitcoin community engaged with regulators for months to achieve this, sources in Tehran told CoinDesk. Still, there is considerable work to be done with regards to lawful ways to use bitcoin for domestic payments, a use-case the Central Bank of Iran still appears inclined to forbid.
“We, developers in Iran who are interested in bitcoin, are doing our best to boost the adoption of this technology,” Amirhossein said.
Yet another Iranian developer, Jadi, who now has restricted access to GitHub pages related to feminist advocacy and Persian literary translations, told CoinDesk the recent series of bans highlights the trouble with relying on centralized systems.
“Even a welcoming, freedom-friendly community like GitHub might be forced to censor something,” Jadi told CoinDesk. “We won’t have this in a decentralized system.”
He added that regulatory pressures to restrict bitcoin usage have only made the Iranian public more interested in bitcoin for cross-border payments and also as a store of value. He said newcomers reason that if the government is spending so much time to regulate the fledgling bitcoin industry, then it must be valuable.
“The price of a miner in Iran is now twice the international price,” Jadi added. “Many people are still buying, even mining in their homes.”
Meanwhile, there are several decentralized services that aim to offer platforms comparable to GitHub, from BlockStack’s DECS application to ConsenSys projects that allow for distributed pull requests, bounties and identity verification. But GitHub and Slack benefit from widespread network effects, which the new services lack.
Until any decentralized alternative provides censorship-resistant access to platforms with comparable social benefits, Jadi and Khodayar both said Iranians will still rely on a combination of VPN, Tor services and global networks of friends who post or send messages on their behalf.
“At the end of the day, this is the internet and packets will find their routes. So we will continue to contribute to and adopt new technologies.”
Iranian currency image via Shutterstock