SAN FRANCISCO — The demonstrations in Egypt have left Google in a bind, trying to maintain a careful diplomatic distance from one of its own young employees who has become a hero to protesting crowds in Cairo — in an uprising that the company's own technology had a small role in advancing.
Google has taken political stances in the past, most notably last year, when it opposed China's censorship laws. Its power-to-the-people philosophy is influenced by co-founder Sergey Brin, who developed an enmity for oppression because of his Jewish family's suffering under Communism in the Soviet Union, including efforts to block his father's career. Google's famous "don't be evil" catchphrase has long been a guiding principle for the company, as it has advocated for openness on the Internet, even as the motto has become a punch line in recent years for privacy activists who object to the company's data-collection methods.
Google's relationship with Egypt has been relatively calm. Based on the company's own breakdown of how frequently it is asked to remove content by authorities around the world, the government of President Hosni Mubarak has rarely objected to its search engine.
Egypt's release this week of Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old marketing manager for Google who has claimed credit for the Facebook page that helped start the uprising, highlights the predicament for high-profile companies whose workers' political activism can become a liability.
Ghonim is an Egyptian who oversees Google's marketing in the Middle East and Africa from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. He went missing Jan. 27, two days after protests calling for Mubarak's ouster began.
One of the main tools for organizing the rallies was a Facebook page in honor of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman who died in June at the hands of undercover police, a hated institution for many Egyptians.
Was snatched off the street
Ghonim said he was snatched off the street and spent much of his detention blindfolded. Upon his release, he confirmed reports that he was the administrator of the Facebook page, saying he didn't want anyone to know about it earlier because "we are all heroes on the street."
On Tuesday, Ghonim was greeted with thunderous applause when he joined a massive crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square and whipped up admirers with a chant of "Mubarak, leave, leave." When he finished, the crowd erupted.
While the demonstrations seeking an end to Mubarak's three decades of authoritarian rule would seem to be in line with Google's philosophy, the company has been careful to distinguish between its employee's off-duty political activities and its own official stance.
Google has said only that it is a "huge relief that Wael Ghonim has been released. We send our best wishes to him and his family." In an interview with Egypt's independent Dream TV, Ghonim said he told his managers that he had an urgent personal matter to attend to and took vacation days to travel to Egypt.
Google's own activism
Google stepped in after Egypt cut off Internet access during the unrest. It devised a way for people to leave voice messages, then have their thoughts posted through the Twitter messaging service. The service, Speak2Tweet, is credited with helping Egyptians get around the blackout.
Politically outspoken companies such as Google must consider the safety of their own workers who might be targeted with violence if their employers are seen as taking sides. And they must navigate fast-changing government relationships while trying to keep business humming in lucrative new markets.
Experts say the stakes in such situations are high because prominent companies attract outsize attention. And the more well-articulated a company's political beliefs, such as Google's, the harder it becomes to disentangle the activism of employees from the company's own actions.
What workers do on their own time typically won't have an effect on their employers — unless those actions are political or criminal or the people involved are top managers, says Jack James, professor of management and corporate governance at the Lubin School of Management at Pace University.
He says Google is wise to stay quiet even as Ghonim's star rises with protesters since taking a position "in a time of turmoil against a regime with 30 years of building vested interests is, in my opinion, an unwise risk."
Case may help Google's reputation
In an indirect way, Ghonim may help Google's reputation. His actions have become part of the Google brand, and Google will get credit for them whether it wants to or not, says Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ghonim's heroic status could "embolden voices within the company to say, 'One of our missions in life is not just to make money for our very successful stockholders, but also make the world better for free expression,'" he says.
"As Google is in the business of seeing information as a powerful and liberating force, this is a case statement that indeed there is just enormous power in the kind of new medium Google has helped create," he said. "This is symbolic, a kind of turning point of our recognition of the power of such media."
There's a circular element to Ghonim's case as well.
Ghonim's relationship with Google is what drove press coverage of his disappearance. Now that he has revealed his involvement in the protests, his activism may remain tied to Google's brand in people's minds..
More about Ghonim:
Egypt frees Google manager who became protest hero
Protesters cheer Google executive
Jessica Mintz of Associated Press contributed to this story from Seattle.
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