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February 15, 2011

Internet Companies Increasingly Caught Up in Political Events

Internet search giant Google and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly finding themselves caught in the middle of global political developments, and playing a role in those events.  In some cases, as with the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they have been a part of the push to overthrow autocratic leaders.  As Google has shown in China, the major Internet companies also have challenged government policies that appear to restrict free speech and personal privacy.

When Google executive Wael Ghonim re-emerged in Egypt earlier this month after being held by security forces for 12 days, he was welcomed like a hero by anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.

Ghonim leads Google’s marketing efforts in the Middle East and North Africa.  A Facebook page he launched before the mass protests began played a key role in drawing demonstrators into the streets - helping to launch the mass public uprising that ultimately ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Marcus Messner, who teaches journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, says Internet companies are playing an increasingly bigger role in world affairs.

"I think you see a more active role, but of course it depends, and it varies by company.  Facebook so far has not taken an active stance, but Google and Twitter, in these protests [in Egypt] have taken a more active stance,” he said.

Messner notes that in 2009, when protests erupted in Iran, Twitter postponed maintenance on its computer network so there would be no interruption in service for protesters using Twitter.  More recently, when authorities in Egypt shut down the Internet, employees from Google, Twitter and SayNow, a voice technology company Google owns, found a way to help protesters get around that obstacle.

With Facebook boasting half a billion members, Twitter growing at rates of 100 to 200 percent per year and the wide presence on the web of Google and You Tube, Messner says the role of Internet companies cannot be denied.  

“They are major players.  When we talk about major media corporations we sometimes forget how big these companies have gotten.  What has to be seen in the future is how much of an active political stand do these companies take themselves,” he said.

Jeffrey Carr, a cyber security columnist for Forbes magazine, says he believes the freedom Google gives its employees enabled them to play a role in Egypt.

“Google as a company is very supportive of their employees.  They give them, I think, 20 percent of their time every week to work on independent projects, and I suspect that that’s what this was, not necessarily a formal corporate decision,” he said.

Carr says what Google's employees did in Egypt was their own work and they deserve a lot of credit for that.  “I think that’s where the humanitarian efforts have to stem from.  Not from the company, but from the employees,” Carr said.

In the end, analysts point out that Google and other Internet firms are still businesses - corporations with an obligation to protect their stockholders' interests.

Jillian York, who is with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says many Internet companies did not build themselves up with the idea that they would be used for activism.

"Each company at some point has to decide whether or not they are going to take a strong stand on these issues.  We’ve sort of seen Google doing that, both with pulling out of China last year and, more recently, they’ve held an Internet freedom conference.  Google seems fairly comfortable in that role.  Facebook perhaps less so.  And then Twitter, I would say, is almost somewhere in the middle," York said.

One thing analysts say is significant is that Google and other high-tech companies have not dismissed employees such as Ghonim and others involved in developing Speak2Tweet - the system linking telephones to the Twitter network that allowed Egypt's protesters to circumvent the Internet shutdown.  Industry analysts say that is a strong statement about the companies' commitment to free-speech issues.