Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Google and Wael Ghonim - The Horns of a Dilemma

Larry Page & Sergey Brin (google tycons), art ...Image via WikipediaEgypt has a hero, albeit a reluctant one, in the shape of Wael Ghonim, the young activist behind the 'We are all Khaled Said' Facebook page. Imprisoned in a blindfold for twelve days, his release apparently brokered by Egyptian businessman Naguib Suweiris, Ghonim is now free and his first words to media were eagerly picked up and relayed around the world - his bravery and resolution were inspirational and are being widely credited with reinvigorating protests yesterday.

The media, as media does, scrambled for details on this new hero. Until his disappearance, Ghonim was an anonymous figure outside a small circle of activists organising the growing protest movement using online tools - although his Facebook page reached over 50,000 people. Luckily, he is a marketing manager at Google, so his official Google piccie was quickly procured and everyone had a nice, clear image of Ghonim. In front of a Google logo. The media also had a nice, snappy explanation of who Ghonim was. He was a 'Google Executive'.

'Google Executive' is brilliant. It's a neat, two-word characterisation that gives the guy some weight, some background, gives us a sense of just who this guy is. Together with the photo, it also neatly ties this young revolutionary activist who was at least partly responsible for bringing Egypt out onto the street and its government to its knees, to Google. Dubai newspaper Seven Days went even further today, with its splash screaming 'Google Chief Slams Traitor Claims'. 'Google Chief' reads so much better than 'young activist', does it not?

Google must be torn. On the one hand, there's little doubt that Larry Page, Sergei Brin and many others over at Goog Mansions would privately support and applaud the freedom of expression, activism and hope that Ghonim undoubtedly represents, let alone his courage. But on the other hand, this is a young man whose actions have helped threaten to bring down a government. His strong association with Google, which does business with, and increasingly depends on the support of, governments (some of which have much in common with that in Egypt), must be giving Google a great deal of pause for thought. It opens Google to the possible implication of involvement in all of this, if only  implicit involvement - surely, critics would aver, a company with the technological resources of Google would know what was going on here. The charge is bunkum, but that rarely stops charges being laid. And Ghonim must have been getting up to at least some of this stuff on company time, surely?

Yet Google can't sack Ghonim. The outcry around the world as this company that stands for the values of freedom and choice sacks a hero would be enormous. Can it champion him? Not without ensuring virtually every government in the world is deeply suspicious about the company, its motives and its staff. All governments, as Wikileaks has taught us, have something to be ashamed of. The best outcome for the corporate people at Google would probably be a quiet resignation and a few public words thanking Google and exonerating it of involvement.

You can imagine the conversation. 'You call him.' 'No, you call him.'
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14 comments:

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

1. Unfortunately this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_damocles comes to mind:

First, "Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown." Second, and perhaps more prophetically, "The value of the sword is not that it falls, but rather, that it hangs."

2. How can any country that claims to be civilised, imprison a citizen for twelve days, with no legal justification?

Tom Gara said...

I'd say given the support tools for activists that Google launched during the protests, it is very unlikely that Google is worried about coming across as in support of Wael or digital activism.

And in reality, if Google is willing to burn bridges with the Chinese government in a public fight, pissing off two bit dictators who have held their countries back so hard that digital adspend remains in the double-digit millions can't make them lose too much sleep.

alexander... said...

Just to be clear: nothing would make me happier than if that were the case.

Mo Elzubeir said...

I tend to agree with Tom on this. It would be a very strange thing to even suggest, given Google's history.

Darine said...

I think you have expressed what has been on all of our minds. Lovely piece Alex, let's wait and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

It's very easy to blur the lines in this region, where your company's social media site can be banned (this can be Syria, Saudi or even the UAE).

However, Google has a large presence in Egypt and does business with the government. The fact that Ghonim is now taking a public, prominent role will not make for an easy relationship between Google and Egypt.

At the end of the day all companies exist to make money across the region and not just in Egypt. Ghonim himself will have to make a decision as to whether he will focus on working with Google or feature full time in the protests and after that in a political role.

You cannot do both publicly, no matter how much you'd like to (and believe me, I'd love to shake a long, hard stick at the regimes in this region). If I were to do this I'd have to leave my company full time. It's not what we want to hear but to be an activist is a full time job, and it's your own views.

Still, after Google's battering over its stance in China I don't think it will mind being given some kudos, even if by accident, over the issue.

Still, does make me feel for all of those who were detained, tortured or killed. How different would it have been for them if they were working for a multinational.

Eman hussein said...

Did you see @google's first tweet after Ghonim was released? The company sent its love and support to him and his family.

The funny part was when Wael announced on Dream TV how he had to lie to his management telling them his father is sick to get out of Dubai and come to Egypt.

I think he works for a cool brave company and he's completely safe there.

Anonymous said...

I think Wael's delimma will not be with Google - it will come from the UAE. Wael lives here. I think he will face problems returning. Watch. I hope I am wrong, but I really do have a strong feeling that obstacles will be thrown at him.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Rupert. My recollection from 'O' Level (1965) says it's:

'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.'

(Henry IV Pt.1 Act III Sc.1)

Duffy said...

Google has a policy of allowing its employees to work on their own projects 20% of the time. Which has borne fruit like Picassa. Maybe overthrowing dictators is Ghonim's side project. That would be nice.

I'm hoping there's a North Korean version of these events soon.

Mo said...

He is being referred to as "Google Activist Wael Ghonim" in several press articles. How much does Google want to let the world know that its employees can overthrow a government with Google's full support? Scary.

Mixed feeling about the whole Wael/Google thing.

Great post, Alex.

the real nick said...

I don't think Facebook complain about the graffiti all over Cairo. I don't think Google would want to disassociate themselves from the young generation of Egyptians either for the sake of pleasing artifically propped up governments in the region. Google and all that newfangled webstuff is bigger than most nation states.

Arpitha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arpitha said...

Fortunately alexander, your worries proved wrong.. google has actually praised the Wael Ghonim's role in the protest.

Google Praises Executive’s Role in Egypt Revolt http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/16/world/middleeast/16google.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

Very proud of what Ghonim did in Egypt: Google CEO
http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics/nation/very-proud-of-what-ghonim-did-in-egypt-google-ceo/articleshow/7507006.cms

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