But in a previously unreported response, Google US head of public policy Mark Isakowitz wrote a month later that the recently eased sanctions still didn’t sanction the activity, “unfortunately.” Instead, Isakowitz urged Congress to work with the Biden administration “to identify additional means to ensure that Iranians have access to vital means of communication and information.”
Google’s reaction in Iran, like that of other tech giants concerned about sanctions and the financial risks associated with them, has prompted employees to take on side projects that use their technical skills. Many of the workers involved refused to give their names or full details of their work for fear of retaliation from their employers or Iran.
Mass coding is “developing technologies that they think can create a level playing field,” says Faraj Aalai, a Silicon Valley community leader who funds and organizes some of the projects. Overall, the project involves hundreds of volunteers from the tech-savvy Iranian diaspora, says Aalai, a longtime tech executive and now founding general partner of investment firm Candou Ventures.
The priority is to develop software that will allow Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet satellites in Iran to be used to overcome web censorship without fear of government snooping. Activists have brought hundreds of Starlink devices to Iran and some of them are already working, Alaei said. Security experts warn that users need to take precautions not to reveal their location.
Among the groups tackling the problem, four engineers from technology companies, including Google, began meeting online to discuss practical solutions and write software designed to help Starlink users escape, one participant said. The group aims to have a decision ready within a few weeks.
The rallying within the Iranian-born tech community has unprecedented energy because more members now support regime change in Iran, and riots have gripped a wider population, especially women, several workers say. It is also acknowledged that government censorship helped quell 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 of what is happening on the streets and in Iran’s prisons, the less likely it is that the government will be able to repeat what has happened over the past 40+ years.”
Tech workers have been both inspired and disappointed by how the industry has stepped up to help Ukrainians over the past year. This included providing cash to humanitarian groups, as well as providing cybersecurity and cloud computing services to the government of Ukraine. “We want to be recognized and legitimized,” says Shafei. “The silence is deafening.”
Google’s reaction in Ukraine showed that its employees donated more than $45 million to the campaign, which it promoted several times on the company’s blog. For Iran, Google discreetly matched donations through an internal worker-led fundraising campaign that ended up funneling about $375,000 into Fund supporting Internet access in Iran, three employees say. The company remains silent about the Iranian government restricting some users from accessing the company’s SafeSearch-enabled version of its search engine, which human rights organization Miaan Group says makes it difficult to access protest-related web results because they can be bloody. and hence considered unsafe.