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Facebook looks to downplay role in Egyptian revolution

Anti-government protesters take pictures of protest art in Tahrir Square, the center of anti-government demonstrations, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time Sunday and agreed to allow freedom of the press and to release those detained since anti-government protests began, though Al-Jazeera's English-language news network said one of its correspondents had been detained the same day by the Egyptian military. The Arabic on the ground reads
Anti-government protesters take pictures of protest art in Tahrir Square, the center of anti-government demonstrations, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time Sunday and agreed to allow freedom of the press and to release those detained since anti-government protests began, though Al-Jazeera's English-language news network said one of its correspondents had been detained the same day by the Egyptian military. The Arabic on the ground readsTara Todras-Whitehill / AP

Facebook's role in the Egyptian revolution can't be overestimated, and would seem to be a perfect marketing opportunity for the world's largest social networking site. But oddly, Facebook appears to be staying mum about that, and seems to prefer it that way.

The reasons? It doesn't want to be viewed as a political football, for one thing, and for another, there are business concerns. A report in The New York Times says that Facebook:

... finds itself under countervailing pressures after the uprisings in the Middle East. While it has become one of the primary tools for activists to mobilize protests and share information, Facebook does not want to be seen as picking sides for fear that some countries — like Syria, where it just gained a foothold — would impose restrictions on its use or more closely monitor users, according to some company executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal business.

The site also doesn't want to change its policy requiring users to use their real identities and not aliases, despite such a request from a U.S. Senator Richard Durbin. The Illinois Democrat wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking that the site change that policy "to protect the human rights of your users." Durbin said in the letter:

I commend you for providing an important tool to democracy and human-rights activists. However, as millions of people around the world use Facebook to exercise their freedom of expression, I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments.

Facebook's communications exec Elliot Schrage "declined to discuss Facebook’s role in the recent tumult and what it might mean for the company’s services," the Times said.

"In a short statement, he said: 'We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.' "

As msnbc.com's Wilson Rothman wrote recently:

... few doubt that much of the momentum built in June 2010, when a Google employee named Wael Ghonim anonymously started a Facebook page to commemorate the death of Khaled Said, beaten to death by police for flaunting drug possession online. The wildfire flame of social networking burned quickly. In just a few weeks, Ghonim's page — We are all Khaled Said — had accumulated 130,000 fans, according to the New York Times. Ghonim this week said that the page has 375,000 followers. (The English-language site visible to U.S. Facebookers has just over 71,000 followers.) In a country with around 5 million Facebook users, that is a large percentile, and doesn't count Facebook users who may visit the page without "liking" it.

And Facebook's role in political change is far from over, as other revolts brew in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, with Facebook being a digital venue for protesters in those countries.

Ghonim, who was kidnapped and detained by authorities in Egypt during the protests there, was asked in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "First Tunisia, now Egypt, what's next?"

Replied Ghonim: "Ask Facebook ... I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him, actually."

Whether that happens —and whether Facebook uses that meeting to marketing advantage — remains to be seen.

— Via Switched

More on the Internet and the Egyptian revolution from msnbc.com's Technolog: