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Wael Ghonim: A "One-Off" for Silicon Valley?

Wael Ghonim over Egypt flag
Wael Ghonim over Egypt flag CBS/AP

Wael Ghonim, the Google product manager who helped pull together the popular demonstrations that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egypt's president, is the hero of the hour. But not everywhere. For many in Silicon Valley, he's their worst nightmare.

On the record, Google's not talking about Ghonim or the question of employee activism. For his part, Ghonim told CBS's Katie Couric in an interview on Friday that his participation in the protests had no connection with his employer. "They did not know anything about this and actually when I took the time off and I went to Cairo, they did not know I was going to the protest," he said. "But when everything became public, I talked with the company and they suggested that I take a leave of absence and I also suggested that to them and I think it was a good decision for that. Google has nothing to do with this."

Asked whether he planned to return to the office, Ghonim said that he'd be honored to return to Google "if I'm not fired."

Maybe that was meant as a tongue-in-cheek comment. But there's a larger truth behind his quip. The key role played by one of Google's key executives in the Middle East revived a decades-old dilemma that many other technology companies face when it comes to the question of political activism: Where should they draw the line?

"It's one of those things that companies don't want to touch with a ten foot pole," a tech public relations exec told me on background.

The obvious truth du jour is that tech companies don't want to take political positions - even when regimes use their products to oppress their own people.

This isn't the first time the issue has stirred this debate in the tech industry. In the 1980s, the divestiture movement pressured American companies to cut their business ties with South Africa's apartheid regime. One by one, nearly every major U.S. tech company eventually left. The one notable exception was IBM, which argued that its policy of constructive engagement would give it more leverage with the South African government to treat black citizens more fairly. It's hard to say how many of the departing companies were spurred by demands for social justice. Most, it's fair to say, were trying to stay ahead of a political movement that threatened to take a toll on their bottom lines.

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For the most part, tech execs are just like their colleagues in other industries in their efforts to try and steer clear of political controversy. This has not always been easy. In the last decade, technology companies have struggled with the question of whether to demand more flexibility from China on human rights and Internet censorship. This has sometimes turned into a political issue. A few years ago, Yahoo turned over information to China authorities which led to the jailing and conviction of a local journalist. (Yahoo was subsequently pilloried in prime time by a Congressional panel.) So far, most tech companies - with the notable exception of Google - have opted to go with the flow and not press publicly for change as a condition of selling technology to China.

If we were talking about plastics makers or fertilizer seed companies, none of this would create a stir. But the American counterculture had a strong influence on the nascent computer and software industries which blossomed in the aftermath of the 1960s. In "What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer," John Markoff does a nice job tracing those unique social and intellectual filaments connecting today's tech world to a broader conception of a corporation's responsibility. The book documents how the industry was created with the help of passionate people who wore their social conscience on their sleeves.

Fast forward and thus, the subsequent "Do No Evil" mantra from Google - it may sound kooky to the rest of Corporate America, but the slogan resonates, at least with many in the rank-and-file. It also opens up a Pandora's Box - this time, it's Ghonim, maybe tomorrow an employee in Beijing. That's a possible scenario that few management teams in Silicon Valley are eager to confront.

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