Google exec's role in Egypt a corporate dilemma

Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim prepares to address anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. He was released yesterday after nearly two weeks in the custody of Egyptian secuirty forces. He has acknowledged that he was the anonymous administrator of the Facebook page that first sparked the protests in Egypt. Thousands of demonstrators continue to occupy the square, demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. (GETTY IMAGES)

When Egypt cut off Internet access last month in a bid to quell anti-government protests, Google joined forces with Twitter to create a tool that lets Egyptians "tweet" by telephone.

Google said it came up with the "speak-to-tweet" service to help Egyptians "stay connected at this very difficult time" - a move very much in keeping with the Internet giant's stated commitment to the free flow of information.

Since then, however, Google has found itself drawn even further into the turmoil with the emergence of a young company executive, Wael Ghonim, as a prominent voice of the protesters seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak.

Business experts said Ghonim's high-profile role in the protests poses a dilemma for management, even for a company like Google that has not hesitated to take on countries such as China in the past.

"I'm sure Google is very nervous about having their employees publicly associated with politics," said Charles Skuba, an international business professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

"It's a slippery slope," Skuba told AFP. "Whenever an employee of a company becomes publicly associated with a political situation there's often more peril for the company than there is advantage."

Google campaigned vigorously for the release of Ghonim, a 30-year-old Egyptian who is the company's marketing chief for the Middle East and North Africa, after he went missing in Cairo on January 27.

Freed on Monday after 12 days in custody, Ghonim addressed huge crowds the next day in Tahrir Square, epicenter of the protests against Mubarak.

Hailed as a hero, Ghonim also revealed that he was behind the "We Are All Khaled Said" page on Facebook that has been credited with helping mobilise the pro-democracy protests that have gripped the country.

While profusely thanking Google in a Twitter message for seeking his release, Ghonim took care to emphasize that his actions are his alone.

In a message on his Twitter feed, àghonim, on Monday, he wrote: "My friends please don't create logos with my personal photos in general. Also specially if it has Google logo in it."

Google for its part issued a brief statement welcoming Ghonim's release but has declined further comment. "It is a huge relief that Wael Ghonim has been released. We send our best wishes to him and his family," Google said.

Rhonda Reger, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said Ghonim may be acting on his own but he will still be associated with Google.

"Whenever an executive speaks, even if he says this is just me speaking, if he's identified as being an executive of the company, people assume it's the company's position as well," Reger said.

She said she expected that discussions have been taking place at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, about "what's the right stance to take (with Ghonim) because it's fairly uncharted ground.

"They don't want to put out something that then becomes a headline 'Google silences executive,'" she said. "But I would not be at all surprised if they're not talking to him.

"Undoubtedly they have policy about this, about what you can and cannot say," Reger continued. "In general, the first responsibility (of an executive) is to be a viable concern and not harm the company and not harm the brand."

Ayman El Tarabishy, a research professor in management at George Washington University's School of Business, said Ghonim's prominent role in the protests is a "double-edged sword" for Google with both risks and rewards.

Social networking titans Facebook and Twitter have been attracting more attention recently than the Internet search giant and the Egyptian protests have put Google back in the limelight, he said.

At the same time, El Tarabishy said, "what they should also be concerned about eventually when this all settles down is how people in power will look at Google.

"Will they be seen as business friendly or as tools in aiding in revolution or uprising?" asked El Tarabishy, who is of Egyptian origin and was in Cairo when the protests began on January 25.

Georgetown's Skuba said Ghonim's activism could be interpreted as being consistent with Google's corporate philosophy of "Don't Be Evil."

"The company cannot afford to be public about their views," he said, "but I would not expect Google to take any action against him."

Skuba said Ghonim "is now a hero in Egypt and in other countries across the Middle East and elsewhere and Google's association is going to be very positive with many people and their customer base.

"The upside is the positive political imagery with this situation," he said. "The downside is potential government actions by Egypt and other countries that may impact Google down the road."

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