When the hacker ethos meets capitalism

By Chrystia Freeland
February 11, 2011

The uprising in Egypt has provoked the familiar “realism-versus-idealism” foreign policy debate in many Western capitals, as diplomats and politicians struggle to balance their ideological sympathy for the protesters against fears of chaos and the threat of a future anti-Western and anti-Israel policy from Cairo if the people do win.

What we have paid less attention to is that the demonstrations have forced some of the world’s hottest technology companies to engage in a very similar debate. The conclusions these technorati end up drawing may be as significant as the verdicts of Western governments. This new intellectual battleground is a further sign that in the age of the Internet and the global economy, foreign policy doesn’t belong just to professionals or to states any more.

The quandary Egypt poses for technology companies – particularly the power troika of Google, Facebook and Twitter – goes far beyond the classic corporate social responsibility concerns that have become standard operating practice at big multinationals.

On one hand, the Egyptian revolt and the ways in which it has been facilitated by the Internet is the apotheosis of hacker culture and its worldview. That is the powerful conviction of the digerati: that they are on the side of freedom, small-d democracy and of doing good in the world. This self-image is easy to mock – that Google pledge to “do no evil” makes a pretty juicy target for satirists – but it is also deeply felt.

Egypt has helped confirm this view of technology companies being on the side of angels. For example, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the protests, was jailed and has emerged this week as an important face of a movement looking for leaders. Before that, there was the much publicized workaround that Google and Twitter technologists devised to help evade the Egyptian government’s communications crackdown. As Adrian Chen noted on the Gawker blog, “the amount of positive press generated [for Facebook] by Egypt’s uprising … could only be greater if Mark Zuckerberg had parachuted in and started beating back riot police himself.”

On the other hand, the problem for technology companies in many parts of the world is that doing good – or even doing no evil – is very much in the eye of the beholder. The views, and the self-interest, of twentysomething programmers in Silicon Valley, or in Bangalore, India, are unlikely to coincide with those of eightysomething dictators. And that can spell trouble for companies intent on building a global business.

“Facebook is trying to expand into China, so it is hard for them to take the side of the protesters,” said Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, which argues the Internet will not necessarily make the world a freer, better place.

“They don’t want to be considered the digital equivalent of Radio Free Europe,” he explained. “If they take the side of the protesters, their global business model will come under pressure.”

Mr. Morozov is pretty certain that in this conflict between “the hacker ethos” and “the capitalist ethos,” it is the hackers who will have to compromise.

But even if he is right that technology company shareholders and executives, like any others, care overwhelmingly about maximizing profits, Mr. Morozov may be underestimating the expectations users and employees have of companies whose founding premises are the empowerment of the individual and the democratization of information.

Facebook, in particular, has been blasted by the Internet’s emerging punditocracy for failing to adapt its no-pseudonyms policy to the needs of democracy activists in authoritarian regimes who, for obvious reasons, can’t use their real names.

Facebook has a sophisticated policy team that understands these concerns. But they are also worried about weakening the “real names only” policy, which is crucial to the power of the platform, by administering a policy that permits some people to have pseudonyms and not others.

Richard Edelman, the boss of the PR firm that carries his name, works with businesses around the world. In his firm’s annual survey of which institutions people trust, technology companies are near the top. They are “seen as legitimate forces for good,” he said.

That halo brings many benefits. But as technology emerges as a force for real good in some of the grimmest parts of the world, that reputation may force technology firms to stick with their idealism even if realism might be better for the bottom line.

“There is a higher expectation of technology companies than of any others,” Mr. Edelman said. “There would be a lower expectation of resource companies, for instance. It is why, ultimately, Google walked in China.”

We used to say that Western missionaries came to do good, and ended up doing well. Technology firms could find themselves forced to do good, even if it sometimes means doing badly.

6 comments

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The rule of Ethics is stronger than the rule of law. If the technology/communications companies must make a choice my view is that they should stick to ethics, in the long run this is the trend that most human beings believe and want for themselves and others. In other words, we want freedom with responsibilities for our acts, justice for all, and opportunities to have a good life materially.

Posted by Jose_Ernesto | Report as abusive

What an insightful essay. My bet is on the good guys. Chrystia Freeland at her best

Posted by geordie247 | Report as abusive

Communication technology is providing new edges never imagined before to achieve important results.

Posted by Mr.Tubarc | Report as abusive

realism
(rē’ə-lĭz’əm)
n.
1.An inclination toward literal truth and pragmatism.
2.The representation in art or literature of objects, actions, or social conditions as they actually are, without idealization or presentation in abstract form.
3.Philosophy.
a.The scholastic doctrine, opposed to nominalism, that universals exist independently of their being thought.
b.The modern philosophical doctrine, opposed to idealism, that physical objects exist independently of their being perceived.

The article confused me with how the terms “idealism” and “realism” are used. If a fireman used a telephone to determine availability of water, is it “idealism” or “realism” that the phone manufacturer produced a reliable device? Do “idealism” and “realism” describe the appliance’s attitude or that of the producer?

Posted by mikedb | Report as abusive

What these businesses need to concentrate on is publishing and developing systems by which no government can shut them down. Once that is in place, no government will try what they know is impossible.

Posted by robert1234 | Report as abusive

I am not sure exactly what you are trying to say here, but some of it appears a bit simplistic. That we “live in a digital world” is really only a metaphor with very limited truth. We live in a decidedly non-digital world of flesh and blood and multiple layers of truth and in-between. It decidedly is NOT binary with simple A XOR B.

You write: “The views, and the self-interest, of twentysomething programmers in Silicon Valley, or in Bangalore, India, are unlikely to coincide with those of eightysomething dictators.”

The implication here is that they DO coincide with protestors in some foreign county. This is a false assumption. The world is a lot more complex than that.

For example – out of Israel came the cries of betrayal by Obama for not supporting Mubarak – and that is the land of great technological sophistication.

But more importantly – what does the digerati of any country know of the people who actually were in the streets of Cairo? To think that he or she does is a classic case of cultural imperialism.

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive