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Egypt's CIO lesson: We use IT tools in ways unintended by toolmakers

After the news broke that Egyptian citizens had made history in the blink of an eye, I wondered briefly if Mark Zuckerberg would be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. Farfetched, yeah. But you can see where I was coming from. His IT tool was the vehicle that drove this relatively peaceful revolution.

As The New York Times reported this week, however, Facebook officials are loath to side with the protestors. According to the Times report, the company shut down one of the most visited sites of the protest movement back in November, after it discovered that one of the site’s administrators, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who became the face of the revolution, didn’t use his real name. That’s a violation of Facebook policy. In Tunisia, when Facebook came to the aid of protestors after the government used a computer virus to ferret out passwords, Facebook was careful to couch the intervention in technical terms, calling it a solution to a security breach.

Facebook has made history as the most powerful new IT tool of the century, but it chooses to stand on the sidelines of these historic events. That makes sense. Based on the movie account of Mark Zuckerberg’s invention of Facebook (so sue me, Winklevii), it seems almost certain that he did not imagine his IT tool would be the principal weapon of a political revolution in Egypt — or the networking vehicle that might yet remake the Middle East. His motivation then seemed a good deal more hormonal.

The truth is that tools take on a life of their own once put in the hands of human beings, who, by nature, are innovative. People are hard-wired to adapt tools in ways the toolmaker never intended — sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.

That’s the Egypt lesson for CIOs.

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