Margareta Pagano: What are the business ethics of revolution 2.0?
Google backed an employee's role in Egypt's protests, but mobile firms and ISPs simply obeyed government orders to shut down
Sunday 13 February 2011
If you haven't seen Wael Ghonim talking after being released from 12 days in secret detention, it's worth catching on YouTube.
In the interview with Dream TV, Ghonim breaks down and sobs for those who have been killed in the two weeks of clashes, repeating over and over: "We are not traitors." It will make you cry too.
And it was the young Google executive's emotional outburst – combined with his growing Facebook campaign – which drew even more protesters to Tahrir Square the day after, helping to keep the heat on the Mubarak regime.
Until this interview, most Egyptians hadn't realised that Google's Ghonim was one of the influences igniting the first protests on 25 January – "the Friday of rage". He first set up the anonymous Facebook page to commemorate Khaled Said, a young businessman in Alexandria who was beaten to death by two policemen last June, and he also helped other opposition groups with their social-networking sites. Ghonim's page quickly became an "information channel" – a rallying point for the campaign – initially against police brutality. Even Egyptians had not known the full extent of torture in their own country until they read what was buzzing around the web. And it is this transparency that has allowed all of us to see behind the scenes to the real but hitherto hidden Egypt, and which gave so much power to this uprising.
Whether history will show that Ghonim was the catalyst that finally brought President Hosni Mubarak to his knees, only time will tell. But there's no question he's a fascinating hero; a romantic revolutionary with a goatee beard, from a well-off family, well-educated (two degrees, in computer engineering and business), a fashionable, hi-tech geek as well as a cyberspace activist. Married to an American, he's based in Dubai where he runs the Middle East and North African business for Google and where he set up his Facebook campaign, going to Cairo two days before the day of rage. Within days, members of his page rose from 90,000 to around 300,000.
But Ghonim's role in the "2.0 revolution" – as he calls it – also raises novel questions about the relationship between an employee who becomes so involved with such a high-profile political campaign and his employer. Luckily for Ghonim, Google is one of the world's biggest and most powerful in its reach, a fact which will have helped when it appealed for information after his disappearance at the hands of the secret police. Google tells me it's delighted Ghonim is free, and is proud of its people "taking a stand". Not every employer would be quite so open and supportive.
There's another big issue, an ethical one, which needs scrutiny and that's the behaviour of the mobile operators and internet service providers in closing down their services in Egypt (in Tunisia too) at the behest of despotic governments, breaking contracts with their customers at the drop of a hat. Much has been made of the extraordinary power of Facebook, mobile phones and Twitter in spreading the word of protest, and its no wonder Google, along with Facebook, is said to be among the predators circling Twitter, which is being valued at up to $10bn.
But the government still managed to shut four mobile networks and the ISPs down for about five days (The US is debating similar powers). What's even more interesting, though, is that the protesters were able to get round this. According to Renesys, a real-time monitor of internet access, the country just fell off a cliff. About 3,500 individual "border gateway protocol" routes were withdrawn, leaving no routes into Egypt apart from the Noor Group – which acts as server for the Egyptian Stock Exchange.
By far the biggest mobile operator is Vodafone Egypt, majority owned by the British telecoms giant, with more than 28 million mobile users and broadband services. It's been heavily criticised for closing down its network – and for sending texts to customers on government instructions, asking them not to protest.
Vodafone has defended its controversial decision, arguing that it was up against a force majeure, and that if the firm hadn't done as the authorities ordered, they would have gone ahead regardless, switching off the base "kill station". If that had been done, the mobile operator claims it would have taken weeks to get services running again. You could say Vodafone is as much a victim as the customer here – it's lost about $100m – and must be reviewing the political risk of its joint-venture activities with other potentially volatile regimes.
Protesters also got around the shutdown by using unofficial DNS – domain name system – servers, which act as "phone books" for the internet, translating computer host names into IP addresses, allowing web access outside the country. Tweets asked those who were online, via Wi-Fi, to turn off passwords so everyone could get access. Others used old-fashioned dial-up modems to get their messages out.
As for the rich Egyptians, they got round it too, as they all have the latest in satellite handsets – the sort used by James Bond types – which cost about $1,000 from satellite companies such as Inmarsat. These cutting-edge handsets should be the must-have gadget for Arab protesters protecting themselves from future shut-downs.
And the 30-year-old Wael Ghonim? Who knows, perhaps he'll become one of Egypt's new leaders. Now that would be a real internet revolution.
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