Canada doesn’t talk much with Iran these days, if you remember. And that makes Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s announcement all the more interesting. Ottawa has just earmarked millions to partner with the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, to expand a project that allows private citizens in Iran and eventually elsewhere to circumvent oppressive government firewalls, to start sharing information, to hold their governments to account and even enable dissent. Ottawa is putting more money into a project aimed at communicating directly with Iranian citizens as it looks to apply a similar strategy in other countries including Russia and parts of Iraq and Syria.
The up-to $9-million investment John Baird described, is for a construction project of sorts in Iran. It’s what’s being dubbed a “digital public square” for Iranians, and the federal government has partnered with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to build it.
First launched during the lead-up to Iran’s 2013 presidential elections, the project was touted as a method for bypassing Tehran and offering a platform for dissidents and human-rights activists in the country.
The expansion of the direct diplomacy project comes as other countries, including the United States and Britain, seek to re-engage with the Iranian government.
Since the project’s launch, the Munk School has developed online tools such as the Rouhani Meter, which tracks which reform promises have been fulfilled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the Majlis Monitor, which attempts to measure the performance of Iranian parliamentarians.
The project, called the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, also provides technology designed to get around online censorship, and has launched YouTube and Twitter accounts in Farsi.
Janice Stein, professor at the Munk School, said the next phase will involve the creation of a “digital public square” that will bring together the tools that have already been established, create new ones and expand the project’s reach into other countries and regions.
“It’s about making space for multiple narratives, it’s about making space for different voices,” Ms. Stein said. “And it is a strongly held proposition, supported by a lot of good research, that societies who make space for a variety of voices do better at almost everything.”
A Canadian government official said that while Iran would remain a focal point for the digital diplomacy project, its expansion would allow the Munk School to look at other locations where a similar strategy could be used, such as Russia and Islamic State-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria.
The official said future projects could include platforms to help people access restricted websites and generate “counter-narratives” that could challenge the message of a repressive regime.
Critics of the approach have argued that Ottawa has focused too much on circumventing Tehran and should look instead at reopening the Canadian embassy and establishing a dialogue with Mr. Rouhani’s government. Canada suspended diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012.
Ms. Stein said she doesn’t view her school’s efforts and traditional diplomacy as mutually exclusive.
She said some of the tools the Munk School has developed include technology that can be used to get around a firewall, allowing people to access websites they might otherwise be barred from.
The focus of the project will continue to be Iran, but there is “lots of discussion” about working in Russia, Ms. Stein said, adding that journalists and civil society groups in that country are increasingly at risk.
In western Syria and northern Iraq, Ms. Stein said there may be opportunities to help people in Islamic State-controlled areas to access the Internet safely and communicate with each other.