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13 Oct 2022

Joseph Menn & Yasmeen Abutaleb, Washington Post

Tech companies & non-profit groups aim to help Iranian protesters

"With U.S. nudges, Google and others aim to help Iranian protesters", 14 October 2022

Though Yasmin Green fled Iran with her parents at 3 years old, she has never been more involved in the struggles of its people.

Recently elevated to chief executive of an elite research team at Google, Green, now 40, has refocused that New York group, known as Jigsaw, on aiding oppressed populations as well as fending off attacks on more open societies.

Now one of the unit’s products, a free virtual private network (VPN) that lets users hide their internet tracks better than most paid versions, is surging in Iran, helping participants in the most widespread protests there in years evade a growing crackdown on communications.

The VPN, called Outline, is available on its own as an app or web download and in versions distributed by third parties such as nthLink, a company that receives U.S. government funding. The firm says monthly users of Outline in Iran have soared tenfold in two months, to 2.4 million unique devices in September.

The government backing for nthLink comes as the Biden administration steps up its efforts to assist Iranians supportive of the protests.

U.S. officials feel they can be most helpful to protesters through their public messaging and by prodding tech companies to provide services — particularly personal communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Signal — as the Iranian government continues to crack down.

As part of that effort, the White House has relaxed sanctions and made it clear to other tech companies that they want them to serve those in Iran that are not connected to the government.

At the same time, nonprofit groups, including those behind encrypted messenger Signal and the alternative internet communications system Tor, are redoubling their work in a cat-and-mouse game with sophisticated Iranian surveillance forces. Signal has recruited volunteers to operate what are known as proxy servers that act as intermediaries to hide the use of Signal from Iranian telecommunications providers.

Jigsaw also makes Intra, an Android app for reaching blocked websites.

Not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, Jigsaw began efforts to “pre-bunk” anticipated false narratives about incoming Ukrainian refugees, a project Green said will expand to other areas in a bid to inoculate people against disinformation.

Outline is simple to install, and nthLink’s version adds more ease and flexibility. Either lets a person run a VPN from a server at home or one based at a cloud provider such as Digital Ocean, which is in Outline’s default configuration.

But it’s not perfect. Outline is being detected in many cases, especially when Iranians use Digital Ocean, said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan Group, an Iran-focused nonprofit in Texas.

Rashidi said further easing of U.S. sanctions could help: Cloud companies would then be more willing to accept payment from within Iran, helping dissident communications. The White House official said the U.S. has already provided exceptions for payments for personal communication tools, but acknowledged that some companies are being overly cautious in applying that.

Elon Musk recently tweeted that his Starlink service was functioning in Iran, but he has not said how many receivers are in the country. The White House said the figure is small. After this story was first published, Musk confirmed on Twitter that there are “very few.”