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.”