News / Science & Technology

Internet Companies Increasingly Caught Up in Political Events

Internet Companies Increasingly Caught Up in Political Events
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.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs