Saturday , 23 February 2019


theverge – The news came down on Thanksgiving Day. ASL19 founder Ali Karimzadeh Bangi, one of the leading lights of the expat Iranian digital rights community, appeared in court on charges of sexual assault and forcible imprisonment. The following day, he would be forced to cut ties with ASL19 entirely.

For many in civil society groups, the court appearance came as a surprise. For years, Bangi had been the public face of the Iran Cyber Dialogue Conference, a major conference dedicated to digital freedom and the promotion of human rights in Iran. Bangi was a cornerstone of the event; one ASL19 employee described it as “the Ali show.” He was a hero to the community, a partner to countless smaller organizations — and now, an alleged sexual predator.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time Bangi had faced such charges. In early 2009, separate charges of sexual assault were filed against Bangi, although they were withdrawn before reaching court. The Verge has also learned of at least one separate incident in which Bangi used a nondisclosure agreement to silence a staff member in the wake of their romantic relationship.

Many former employees of ASL19 see the charges as part of a larger pattern. Speaking to The Verge, employees describe a workplace where drug use, parties, and late-night deadlines mixed freely with aggression and sexism. It’s still unclear how often that behavior bordered on assault (the charges against Bangi are still unresolved), but even where it stopped short, employees say Bangi fostered a hostile and sometimes even abusive workplace.

For years, ASL19 was at the forefront of a new push for digital freedoms in the wake of Iran’s Green Revolution. After the 2009 election, liberal Iranians had taken to the streets to protest irregularities in the vote. Facing brutal opposition by police, they also took to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, sharing protest plans or videos of slain protester Neda Agha-Soltan. Suddenly, access to digital platforms seemed like a global force for democracy. An activist and computer scientist living in Canada, Bangi seized the moment. That same year, he joined the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab project, where he would look for ways to promote a free Iranian internet.

The next three years would see mass protests in 20 different countries, a historical confluence that became known as the Arab Spring. The internet played a profound role in those uprisings, which forced Western governments to rethink how to promote democracy abroad. Why hold seminars or airdrop political pamphlets when you could connect citizens to the open web to explore for themselves? That logic was particularly compelling for influencing events in Iran, where the fledgling pro-democracy movement was struggling against widespread internet censorship. Suddenly, the US, Canada, and private donors were offering tens of millions of dollars in grant money for anyone who could build digital tools and give Iranians a reliable way to access them.

In April 2012, Bangi made a play for that grant money, leaving his role at Citizen Lab to found a new for-profit company he called ASL19. The group was still closely tied to Citizen Lab and operated out of its offices for more than a year, but Bangi saw it as a separate venture. The plan was to bring together digital ambitions with on-the-ground expertise in Iran, something few groups could manage at the time. Staffed with recent immigrants from the region, ASL19 could pitch web projects that would appeal to actual Iranians and support those projects with Farsi-speaking tech support. They also had the technical savvy to set up the necessary circumvention tools that would get those websites through to actual citizens. Bangi’s connections at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs gave him an early line on government-funded projects like the multimillion-dollar Digital Public Square initiative, which funded digital tools for political opposition groups around the world. The company grew fast: it currently employs more than two dozen people, a large staff by the standards of the digital rights world.

Beyond the grants, ASL19’s work had a real impact on the average Iranian’s ability to reach banned websites. Iran’s government operates a complex system of web filters to block unapproved sites, but by partnering with a circumvention called Psiphon, ASL19 was able to beat that system, giving citizens a way to tunnel through web filters. Keeping it live meant a constant game of cat and mouse with the country’s central telecom, but for the most part, ASL19 was able to do it. By the 2013 election that brought Hassan Rouhani to power, Bangi told reporters that as many as 900,000 people in Iran were using the new circumvention tools to reach the open web, more than 1 percent of the country’s population. Once they were through, there were in-depth pages tracking the policies of Rouhani and the Iranian parliament, far beyond anything you would find in the state-run media.

Outside of Iran, ASL19 enjoyed an aura of cool that seemed to radiate from Bangi himself. A fixture at conferences and digital rights events, Bangi was charismatic, generous with his time, and eager to connect people in the community. In public, he showed a glamorous disregard for the regular order that seemed to delight everyone involved. In 2016, Bangi was invited to the White House’s annual Nowruz celebration, a recognition of his rising place in the pro-democracy community. He wore an asymmetric jacket and silver sneakers, his way of standing out in a sea of dark suits.

That rock star approach extended into the workplace. Bangi would throw lavish parties in the Toronto office whenever a donor or contact came through town. Most of the employees were young, often working their first job outside of school, which made the social events seem even more glamorous. Parties would frequently run late in the office, often fueled by cocaine, pills, or psychedelic mushrooms.

But former employees say that the rock star attitude came with an aggressive and unpredictable streak. Sometimes Bangi became violent in the office, throwing objects at employees after being challenged. Afterward, he would be apologetic, but the message was clear. Other times, he would disappear entirely. Employees grew used to their boss going missing from the office in the middle of the week after late-night binges known in the office as “Stripper Tuesdays.”

In the office, Bangi’s interactions with female employees of ASL19 were often disrespectful or harassing. He made comments about their appearance on an almost daily basis, asking why they didn’t dress better or wear more makeup. When female employees did meet his standards, he would use the compliments to pit them against other women in the office. “When I first started working at ASL, I would dress nice and wear makeup, but Ali would always look me up and down, from my feet to the top of my dress,” one former employee said. “I started wearing baggy clothes to work.”

Bangi’s recklessness seemed to trickle down through the entire organization. Female employees say they would sometimes face the silent treatment from co-workers in response to minor disputes. Bangi was too flighty to be helpful, and with no conventional HR or clear hierarchy, there was nowhere to turn when managers crossed the line. “HR was not just incapable,” one employee said. “They were perpetuating this kind of behavior.”

Many employees had no sense of Western office etiquette, which made it even harder to push back. “They get young people who come in without really knowing what’s right or what’s wrong in a workplace setting,” another employee said, “and they take advantage of that.”

Security measures made it even harder for employees to assert themselves. Management was deeply concerned about retaliation from the Iranian government, and they closely guarded any information that might lead back to employees and their families. Most employees were given pseudonyms when they joined the company and were instructed never to tell co-workers their real names. Alongside their contract, they were instructed to sign a nondisclosure agreement forbidding them from revealing any confidential information, including their co-workers’ identities. Employees were told not to discuss anything about their personal lives in the office, since even minor details could be identifiable. “You were discouraged from asking questions,” one employee said, “which made it that much easier to be isolated.”

When an employee left, that anonymity became even more isolating. Management often gave incomplete or confusing explanations after an employee split with the company, but the pseudonyms made it difficult for remaining employees to find out what had happened. With no identifiable data to go on, there was no way to track down a former employee to ask what had gone wrong.

Because management knew everyone’s name, direct confrontations felt dangerous. Bangi never hinted at the possibility of exposing someone on purpose — but employees were all aware that he could. “It was always in the air,” one employee said. “We never felt safe because we had our aliases and had to trust management with them.”

“This is what happens with networks of trust,” she continued. “If you have a predator in a network of trust, you can’t go to the police or any other authority. You’re isolated within it.”

When employees did step forward with workplace complaints, the response from management was meager at best. One developer left the company only two weeks after relocating to Toronto for the job. She made a point to say she was leaving because of sexist working conditions. She had been given conflicting tasks, gaslit over anything that went wrong, and constantly taken the brunt of her superiors’ aggressive management style. None of the male developers faced the same problems, she told the company’s management.

They promised to investigate, and a few months later, she finally got a response from management. “Our conclusion is that we’ve found no sexism or trends of sexism,” the response read. “We explicitly asked the women interviewed if they had observed or experienced any sexism at ASL19, to be mindful of any possible trends. Their opinion is that there is no sexism.”

At the same time, Bangi was privately facing mounting legal difficulties. The earliest known assault charge brought against him dates back to 2009, although the charge was later withdrawn. He’s currently charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement, which allegedly took place on March 17th, 2016. The charges are still subject to a publication order, a privacy measure in Canadian law that prevents the details of sexual assault charges from being made public.

There’s also reason to think Bangi had moved to stop at least one woman from coming forward in the past. In 2014, Bangi had told a friend that a romantic relationship with an employee had become a liability and that he was planning to force her into a new, more aggressive nondisclosure agreement to contain the damage. That individual told The Verge that Bangi didn’t go into detail on how the NDA would be enforced, but he clearly saw it as a move to protect ASL19 as an organization.

The most recent charges were officially brought against Bangi on January 30th, 2017, but it wouldn’t be until November that they became publicly known. Employees continued working alongside Bangi, with no inkling that he had been accused of sexual assault. The news finally broke with a report in Toronto’s Metro News on Thursday, November 23rd, which laid out the charges against Bangi as they came to trial. Still, the the charges themselves were enough to set out a firestorm, particularly in the wake of the unrelated horrific sexual assault allegations against fellow Citizen Lab affiliate Morgan Marquis-Boire.

The day after the report published, ASL19 publicly severed ties with Bangi. In a statement, company management claimed they had only learned of the court appearance earlier that week. “Immediately upon learning about the court appearance, we met with Mr. Bangi about the accusations which gave rise to the charge,” the statement read. “At the conclusion of that meeting, Mr. Bangi resigned from ASL19.” The statement was signed by Anna May and Fereidoon Bashar, who took over directorship of the company. The previous day, Bangi had signed over ownership of the company to Feri, officially severing his financial ties to the company.

Not everyone was satisfied by the response. The statement focused on Bangi’s court date, but the charges had been on file at the courthouse for nearly a year. The allegedly aggressive nondisclosure moves had taken place over a year before that. Was it really possible that senior management had only learned about the incident two days before the local media?

In the months since the statement, ASL19 has continued on despite Bangi’s charges and departure. When protests in Iran pushed circumvention tech back into the news, Feri was at the forefront of the response, appearing in Wired and The Wall Street Journal. Reached by The Verge, Feri and Anna referred us to a recent statement on the company blog, reflecting on Bangi’s departure and announcing a new partnership with a group called Coda Societies to improve company culture. “As an organization dedicated to freedom of access to information and values of human rights, we hold ourselves accountable to high standards of conduct to serve our mission and communities,” the statement reads. (Bangi himself did not respond to requests for comment.)

For some former employees, that continuity isn’t reassuring and they want recognition that changes are necessary. “Ali is gone, but management is still complicit,” one employee said. “They enabled this behavior.”