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Google's Egypt hero: Tech biz, keep out of Arab politics

'Companies who take sides will learn the hard way'

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The Google marketing manager who became a hero during the Egyptian revolution warned Western governments and companies to butt out of the region's politics at a privacy conference in London yesterday.

Wael Ghonim also put the role of Facebook and other online tools into perspective, at Google's Big Tent privacy shindig.

Ghonim was working as a marketing exec for Google in the Middle East, when he set up a Facebook page called "We are all Khaled Saeed" early last year. Saeed was an Egyptian who was dragged out of a cybercafe by Egyptian police and beaten to death.

Ghonim's site became a focal point for discontent about the Egyptian regime, and he was arrested during the protests, spending 11 days in custody.

Facebook has come in for criticism over its real names policy, but Ghonim pointed out yesterday that the advantage of Facebook's pages tool was that it doesn't show who is behind a particular page.

While some of the more excitable commentators have argued the internet will give "people power" more leverage, leading to a rapid toppling of corrupt regimes, Ghonim was much more reflective.

The internet was important, he said, but as the protests continued in Egypt, it became "less and less" a prime mover and "moved to letting people know what is happening".

But, he also added, it is now harder for corrupt regimes to cover up their crimes and deny protests are even happening. "If you're trying to hide everything, you're going to be exposed."

When the Egyptian government cut off the internet, it actually pushed more people onto the street to find out what was happening, he added.

He also pointed out that his activities were nothing to do with his employer: "Google were not really involved."

Ghonim was less even-handed on the role of Western companies – and governments – who acquiesce to or collaborate with authoritarian regimes.

Corporations should "stay away from this game", he said. Tech companies may well play an important role in providing the tools to let people realise their political aspirations, but should let people decide what they want to achieve.

"Those companies who decide to take sides will learn their lesson the hard way," he said.

Similarly, Western governments should not try to set the agenda for reform in Egypt and other Arab countries, he said: "It's very important to let the Egyptians sort out their issues. If you want to help us as a government, start doing what you are calling for."

The West should consider its values, not interests, he said. For too long it had looked at people at people in the Middle East with dollar signs in its eyes, "or oil barrels to be more accurate".

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt greeted Ghonim on stage ahead of his own presentation, saying he was a real "hero" for the firm.

"I"m not sure I could have done it," Schmidt said. "Me neither," said Ghonim. ®

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