But in a previously unreported response, Mark Isakowitz, Google’s head of U.S. public policy, wrote back a month later saying that “unfortunately,” the newly eased sanctions still did not authorize the activities . Instead, Isakowitz urged Congress to work with the Biden administration to “identify additional ways to ensure Iranians have access to vital communication and information tools.”
Like other tech giants concerned about sanctions and related financial risks, Google’s response to Iran has prompted employees to pursue side projects to leverage their technical skills. Many of the workers involved declined to be named or provide full details about their jobs for fear of retaliation from their employers or Iran.
Grassroots coding is about “developing technology that they think will level the playing field,” says Faraj Aalaei, one of the Silicon Valley community leaders who has funded and organized projects. Overall, hundreds of volunteers from the tech-savvy Iranian diaspora participated, said Aalaei, a longtime tech executive who is now a founding general partner at investment firm Candou Ventures.
The immediate priority is to develop software that will allow Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellite in Iran to defeat online censors without fear of being tracked by the government. Activists have brought hundreds of Starlink devices into Iran, some of which are already operational, Aalaei said. Security experts warn that users need to take precautions so as not to reveal their location.
Among the group working on the problem, four engineers working at tech companies, including Google, have begun meeting online to discuss practical solutions and write software designed to help Starlink users hide themselves, one of the people said. The group aims to have a solution ready within weeks.
Several workers said the rally within the Iranian-born tech community had unprecedented energy because more members now support regime change in Iran and the unrest has spread to a wider demographic, especially women. It is also recognized that government censorship has helped deter previous protests in the country.
“Keeping connections with the outside world is a lifeline for internal protesters,” said Shoresh Shafei, a data scientist who left Google a year ago. “The more we learn about what’s going on in Iran’s streets and prisons, the less likely it is that the government will repeat the mistakes of the past 40-plus years.”
The way the industry has stepped up to help Ukrainians has not only encouraged tech workers but also frustrated them over the past year. This includes cash transfers to humanitarian groups, as well as cybersecurity and cloud computing services to the Ukrainian government. “We want to be recognized and legalized,” Sha Fei said. “The silence was deafening.”
Google’s response in Ukraine indicated that it and its employees donated more than $45 million in a campaign that was repeatedly publicized on the company blog. For Iran, Google quietly matched donations in an internal employee-led fundraiser that ended up donating about $375,000 to a foundation that supports internet access in Iran, three employees said. The company has remained silent on the Iranian government restricting certain users from accessing its version of the search engine and activating the company’s SafeSearch feature, which rights group Miaan Group said blocked access to protest-related web results because they could be bloody. , and is therefore considered unsafe.
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