The free-speech fundamentals of Freewebs

Created by young men who fled persecution in Afghanistan, the Web site publisher has made user rights a key business principle.Photos: The Freewebs family
Written by Greg Sandoval, Contributor
Shervin Pishevar believed he had to speak up.

At the D technology conference in San Diego last May, Yahoo CEO Terry Semel was explaining why his company turned over information that likely helped Chinese authorities sentence a journalist to 10 years in prison. Yahoo, Semel reasoned, had to obey the laws of the land in which it operated.

"It hit me hard," said Pishevar, whose family fled Iran after the 1979 revolution there. "I thought about apartheid and the Nazis. I thought that if Yahoo was around in the 1930s, Anne Frank might have been blogging instead of writing in a diary. I asked Semel if he would have cooperated with the Nazis in that case." Semel responded that he didn't know how he would feel in such a situation, according to reports of the exchange.

Pishevar's tough question of the embattled Yahoo exec received wide media coverage, thrusting Pishevar into the limelight. But he's no activist. He's president of the Web site publishing company Freewebs, founded by four brothers from Afghanistan whose family had a similar experience running from political persecution: they fled to the U.S. in 1983 after their father was imprisoned for six months, without being charged, by the Communist Afghan government backed by the Soviet Union.


One could say free speech hits home for Freewebs' founders and executives because they've had firsthand experience with oppressive governments, said Haroon Mokhtarzada, one of the founding brothers. In 2001, Mokhtarzada, who was 23 at the time, and two of his brothers set out to build a profitable company that would also be guided by simple principles: make the Internet accessible to anyone and protect users' rights to express themselves freely.

Freewebs invites people to build their own Web sites using the company's software tools, which are "easy enough for anyone's grandmother to use," boasted Mokhtarzada. Headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., the company sees 18 million monthly visitors, according to Media Metrix, and hosts more than 15 million Web sites. The privately held company supports itself through advertising sales.

The widget factor
Recently, Freewebs branched into widgets, the term used to describe icons or graphical interfaces that give users a quick way to perform tasks on their computer via dialog boxes, icons or menu bars. In addition to offering users a way to load video, photographs, music and text to their Web sites, the company is now creating customizable widgets, which include one launched last month that lets users host forum discussions from anywhere on the Web. Freewebs Forums can be hosted on someone's Web site or social-networking page and be accessed without leaving those areas. Users can register, reply and file posts to the forum without leaving the widget.

Plenty of companies, such as MySpace.com, Blogger.com or WordPress, offer blogging tools or other software to create a Web presence. "But Freewebs has all these widgets on the site which make it more dynamic," said Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. "You don't want to just offer users text or photos. Freewebs enables users to create Web pages through a large variety of widgets, which is pretty smart."

Li added that Freewebs could see some competition from Ning, a start-up founded by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen that enables users to create their own social-networking sites. She said Freewebs is more widget-friendly than Ning, but "I don't think it would be too hard for Ning to add that."

Competition from a big name like Andreessen probably doesn't faze this bunch. Haroon Mokhtarzada remembers his mother stashing silver in a diaper bag as she prepared to flee Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion. The family's father had been arrested because he was suspected of sympathizing with rebels fighting the communists.

To get permission to leave, their mother told authorities she was visiting her parents in India. To keep up the ruse, she had to leave behind all the family's possessions.

"She basically couldn't touch anything in the house," said Mokhtarzada, 30. "It couldn't look like we were moving at all. We left with nothing and went to India. My dad came a couple of weeks later (after he was freed from prison). The silver in the diaper bag was all we took with us."

Pishevar, for his part, coolly recalls watching tears roll down his brother's face when their father, a director of radio and television in Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution, told them that he had been marked for death by revolutionary forces and would have to flee for his life.

After experiences like that, competition with Ning doesn't seem like something to get too upset about. And Freewebs' principals are equally comfortable with confronting other well-known executives.

Shortly after Pishevar spoke to Semel at the D conference, Chinese authorities requested that Freewebs turn over information about some Chinese users. Freewebs refused, and within a few days its users in China began complaining that they could no longer access the site.

"China is a huge market," Pishevar said. "We would love to be in China. We've tried negotiating with them. But we had to make a decision. And we believe that over the long term we're making the right decision in terms of what we stand for."

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