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Big Tech Is Playing It Safe On Iran. Workers Are Taking Charge

But in a previously unreported response, Google’s US public policy head Mark Isakowitz wrote back a month later saying that newly relaxed sanctions still had not authorized those activities, “unfortunately.” Isakowitz instead urged Congress to work with the Biden administration “to identify additional means of ensuring Iranians’ access to vital communication and information tools.”

Google’s Iran response, like that of other tech giants concerned about sanctions and related financial risks, prompted side projects by employees to put their technical skills to use. Many of the workers involved declined to be named or provide complete details about their work out of fear of retaliation by their employers or Iran.

The grassroots coding is all about “developing technology that they think can form a level playing field,” says Faraj Aalaei, one of the Silicon Valley community leaders funding and marshaling some of the projects. Overall, hundreds of volunteers from the tech-savvy Iranian diaspora are involved, says Aalaei, a longtime tech executive and now founding general partner of investment firm Candou Ventures.

A priority is to develop software that could enable use of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellites in Iran to defeat web censorship without fear of being tracked by the government. Activists have brought hundreds of Starlink units into Iran, with some already operating, Aalaei says. Security experts have warned that users need to take precautions to avoid exposing their location.

Among groups tackling that issue are four engineers who work at tech companies, including Google, who have begun meeting online to debate practical solutions and write software aimed at helping Starlink users hide themselves, one person involved says. The group aims to have a solution ready within weeks.

The rallying within the Iranian-born tech community has an energy unlike ever before, because more members now support a regime change in Iran and the unrest has spread to a wider swath of the population, particularly women, several workers say. There also is recognition that government censorship helped stymie previous protests in the country.

“Staying connected to the outside world is a lifeline for protesters inside,” says Shoresh Shafei, a data scientist who left Google a year ago. “The more we raise awareness about what’s going on in the streets and prisons of Iran, the less likely the government is able to repeat what has happened in the past 40-plus years.”

Tech workers have been not only inspired but also frustrated by the way the industry stepped up to help Ukrainians over the past year. That has included providing cash to humanitarian groups, and cybersecurity and cloud computing services to the Ukrainian government. “We want to be acknowledged and legitimized,” Shafei says. “The silence is deafening.”

Google’s Ukraine response saw it and its employees donate over $45 million in a campaign it promoted several times on a company blog. For Iran, Google quietly matched donations in a worker-led internal fundraising campaign that ultimately directed about $375,000 to a foundation supporting internet access in Iran, three employees say. The company has remained silent about the Iranian government limiting some users to accessing the version of its search engine with the company’s SafeSearch feature activated, which human rights organization Miaan Group says hobbles access to protest-related web results because they can be gory and thus considered unsafe.