Once upon a time, Google concerned itself with seemingly benign, profit-driven things: the optimal position of online ads for erectile dysfunction drugs, mapping the location of every sports bar in America, churning out free services to further cement a quasi-monopoly in global search.
But these are no longer the comfortable, well-established guardrails around Google.
More than two years ago, as governments on two continents were preparing to launch anti-trust investigations against it, Google began moving aggressively onto the turf of states. Today, Google is arguably one of the most influential nonstate actors in international affairs, operating in security domains long the purview of nation-states: It tracks the global arms trade, spends millions creating crisis-alert tools to inform the public about looming natural disasters, monitors the spread of the flu, and acts as a global censor to protect American interests abroad. Google has even intervened into land disputes, one of the most fraught and universal security issues facing states today, siding with an indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon to help the tribe document and post evidence about intrusions on its land through Google Earth.
In a new form of digital statecraft, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt has traveled to North Korea against State Department wishes. “Keep the government out of regulating the Internet,” he recently told an audience on a visit to Burma. (Disclosure: Schmidt is the chairman of the New America Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and Arizona State University.)
As Google evolves its role on the world stage, the fundamental question might be less about whether states might regulate Google, but whether states can compete against such a powerful, global technology platform. After all, Google appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from the threat of state intervention. In January, it was victorious after a two-year anti-trust investigation by U.S. regulators. Earlier this month, Google settled with European regulators following a two-year inquiry. And for the systematic collection of personal data, such as personal photographs and emails from Wi-Fi networks through its Street View mapping service, Google must pay what amounts to a pittance of a fine to a German privacy regulator.
Google’s most explicit and organized foray into state domains has been under the banner of Google Ideas, its “think/do tank.” Jared Cohen, who gained fame as a rising star of “digital diplomacy” at the State Department, joined Google in October 2010 to launch Google Ideas. It began with a trio of initiatives under the broad umbrellas of counter-radicalization, illicit networks, and fragile states. Through the unit, Google has collaborated with state authorities to dismantle what it calls illicit networks, such as drug cartels and human trafficking, and worked with the U.S. government’s broadcasting arm, Voice of America, to run the “first phone-based constitutional survey” in Somalia.
It has even staked a claim in the fight against violent extremism, in which there has “traditionally been an over-reliance on governments,” as Cohen wrote in a post on Google’s corporate blog nearly a year ago. “What do a former violent jihadist from Indonesia, an ex-neo-Nazi from Sweden and a Canadian who was held hostage for 15 months in Somalia have in common?” Cohen asked. With this, Google Ideas launched the quasi-social network aimed at a demographic not typically coveted by advertisers: former gang members, religious extremists, right-wing nationalists, far-right fascists, or the victims thereof. The Against Violent Extremism network would spur a global conversation, “de-radicalize” youth and serve as a “one-stop shop” to reframe the issue of counter-radicalization. Wired called it the “Facebook for terrorists.” Among America’s foreign policy elite, it was praised as an example of something Google can do “much more easily than any government could.” A year later, 231 former terrorists and violent extremists have joined AVE. But they’re outnumbered: The network hosts almost three times as many private-sector members and Western elites, such as NGO workers and academics.
As Google carved out a role in terrorism prevention, state-based counter-radicalization programs have come under scrutiny. "Western governments … are unlikely to succeed in tackling the risk of future terrorism by attempting to shape religious ideology," Samuel Rascoff, a law scholar at New York University, wrote in a January 2012 paper questioning the effectiveness of state-based counter-radicalization efforts that promote "mainstream" theological alternatives to radical Islam. In addition to criticizing state-led efforts, Rascoff questioned initiatives by the private sector. Despite having a “less pronounced government footprint,” he writes, nongovernmental actors in this space may rouse suspicion, with skeptical targets worrying “that the secretive national security apparatus plays some unknown role in the process.” Indeed, Google’s alignment with the national security apparatus is far from clear. Despite frequently touting transparency as a core value, the details of Google’s relationship with the National Security Agency on encryption and cybersecurity remains a secret.
In a series of sketches about “our future world” in The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, a new book by Schmidt and Cohen, there is the slightest of hints of what Google’s alignment with state security apparatuses might actually look like, especially in regards to counterterrorism efforts: “We’ll use computers to run predictive correlations from huge volumes of data to track and catch terrorists, but how they are interrogated and handled thereafter will remain the purview of humans and their laws,” they write. Is there a global, nonstate actor with more access to “huge volumes of data” than Google? Indeed, Google, which often bristles at regulation, may have little choice but to enter and cooperate more fully with states in the fraught arena of counterterrorism. “The public will demand that [technology companies] do more in the fight against terrorism,” Cohen and Schmidt write. And this was before Boston, before every video watched and posted by Tamerlan Tsarnaev on YouTube had been scrutinized for signs of radicalization.
In The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen describe the Internet as the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. They go further, too, arguing it might “ultimately be seen as the realization of the classic international-relations theory of an anarchic, leaderless world.” By describing the Internet in such dystopian fashion—a space ravaged by code wars and cyberwarfare, a place where terrorists get radicalized and illicit networks find global reach—Cohen and Schmidt justify Google’s increasingly close ties with state security interests. Yet the authors conceive of the battle for power in our time as one mostly between citizens and states, a conception of the world that deflects less obvious questions: How state-like will states allow Google to become? As a global, borderless entity, what mechanisms exist for Google’s billions of global users to hold Google accountable? Yes, Google allows users to download personal data and activity logs, but that’s not exactly the same thing as having a say in how Google uses that same data.
Google’s view on state regulation is certainly no secret. The defining theme of Schmidt and Cohen’s book is “the importance of a guiding human hand,” a clever rewrite of Adam Smith’s centuries-old metaphor for free markets that even today animates our endless debates about the proper role of the state in regulating the economy. Schmidt and Cohen never explicitly refer to Google as the all-important “guiding human hand” the world needs today. Yet for a company that’s never been humble, a company unafraid to enter the Sisyphean quest for global security, it is hard not to imagine that’s what they meant.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.