February 13, 2011 8:57 pm

Web firms aim to benefit from role in uprising

The US internet companies whose names became closely associated with the uprising in Egypt are hoping for spin-off benefits to their brands from the fall of President Hosni Mubarak – though some observers warn that the association could also backfire on them.

After distancing themselves during much of the popular uprising in Egypt, Google and Facebook shifted ground at the end of last week as the “halo effect” from the upheaval promised to boost their standing.

Google had earlier struck a wary stance over Wael Ghonim, a local marketing manager who was detained by Egyptian authorities and became a leading public face of the protest, and had tried to draw a sharp distinction between his job and how he spent his personal time.

With Mr Mubarak’s departure, however, it changed course to ally its own corporate ideals with his activism.

“We hire incredibly passionate people,” a spokesperson said. “Their values are the values of the web: access to information, freedom of communication, the power of people and democracy and we’re always incredibly proud to see Googlers take a stand on those issues.”

Google’s new stance follows an outpouring of support among its own employees for Mr Ghonim and reflects a belief that its standing among younger internet users in particular will be boosted by his activism.

Recent research in the US by JD Power, for instance, showed that people at an early stage in their career were drawn to brands that stand for strong values far more than those merely seen as “trendy”.

Facebook, which Mr Ghonim himself credited with playing a central role in the uprising, also sought to align itself with the outcome, while trying not to take the spotlight off the protesters.

“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound, nonviolent change in their country,” the company said. “Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts, but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”

The political upheaval in Egypt is “a great publicity moment” for the internet companies, though it could also rebound to harm them, said Evgeny Morozov, author of Net Delusion, a recent book questioning some of the claims made for how US internet services like Twitter and Facebook boost political freedom. “It’s a dilemma for these companies,” he added.

While Google’s services are likely to be more popular in the Egypt, the company could suffer in other parts of the Middle East at a time when it has put a high priority on expanding there, said Mr Morozov. He added that political activists may baulk at seeing the internet companies try to take the credit, since some of their practices, like Facebook’s refusal to allow users to hide their identity behind pseudonyms, have made it harder for activists to operate, he added.

Besides the immediate brand benefits, a person close to one of the US internet companies predicted that the recent events would greatly aid with hiring at a time when Silicon Valley companies are fighting over top talent, since engineers would be drawn to companies that are credited with changing the world.

Another person said that giving overt backing to the protesters at an earlier stage might have hurt their cause, since it would have made it easier for the Egyptian authorities to claim the uprising had been fomented by US interests.

Hilary Clinton is due to give a speech on internet freedom on Tuesday, taking up a cause she first threw the State department’s weight behind in January last year, shortly after Google said it was considering ending its submission to Chinese censorship.

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