Tech Workers Fight for Iran Protesters as Big Tech Plays It Safe


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.

Google spokesperson Shira Almeleh says that, as part of the industry group Global Network Initiative, the search giant has “stood with many companies in clearly expressing [its] deep concern about the ongoing violence and efforts to disrupt free expression.” Use of Google’s Outline VPN has surged tenfold in Iran since protests began, Almeleh says, and the company remains focused on legally permissible ways to assist Iranian citizens.

In one previously unreported initiative that some Iranian tech workers view as emblematic of the caution at play, in October, after lobbying from employees, Microsoft allowed anyone to place calls to Iran on Skype for free to help families stay connected, according to two employees and posts on the company’s online help forum and social media. “#Skype has made it free to make international calls to Iran. I just called my family and it worked!” one Twitter user wrote at the time. But Microsoft did not publicly announce the promotion and then ended it after two days without public explanation, the two employees say. 

Microsoft declined to comment for this story. It provided a significant amount of free credit for cloud computing services to Iranian activists, but it is unclear if they will get more, two people involved in projects using them say. 

Tech companies have several reasons to be more deliberate about Iran than Ukraine. The geopolitics of a war that threatens Europe’s security and the domestic upheaval in Iran are very different, and not every Iranian immigrant working for a US tech company is supportive of the protests, adding to complexities for companies to weigh as they face the calls to wade into the latest social crisis. 

Companies also face legal uncertainties. The United States has blocked business with Iran for decades over its alleged support of Islamic terrorists and pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although the Biden administration loosened sanctions on social media and other tech tools, interpretations of those rules vary, and breaching sanctions can come with prison time and multimillion-dollar penalties. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it welcomes exemption requests from companies seeking permission to launch new services supporting internet freedom in Iran. 

With companies likely to stay cautious, the workers who have sprung into action include teams working on secure chat technology. One group of five, mostly European, engineers has met twice a week for the past three months to research enabling texting between devices, without need for the internet, while leveraging Tor and other data transfer protocols to ensure security, a person involved says.

Others are upgrading an existing encrypted messaging system or writing a guide for using Meta’s WhatsApp through a proxy server that eludes government censors. A few engineers in Canada developed a website that helps a long march of protesters synchronize their chants, one source says. 

Not all tech workers are operating in stealth. Mahni Shayganfar, a machine learning engineer in Silicon Valley, says he posts on Instagram about the protests 30 times a day now, after barely ever sharing content on any topic before. He says if people become informed about Iranian culture, they might consider offering support. “The main thing we can do is be their voice,” he says of the protesters.