Google's Foreign Policy

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen co-author a very curious piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, called The Digital Disruption.  What's curious isn't the lightly tempered enthusiasm about the potential of technology to devolve power away from states to individual citizens-- classic Schmidt, classic Cohen-- nor is it curious to find an essay from a pair of Googlers in the foremost journal of international affairs, after all, the company has had a significant and growing impact on our world. Rather, what's so curious is the direction of their conclusions.

They spend most of the essay offering their overview of how connection technologies are changing the world: empowering citizens and civil society to play a larger role in global affairs, while also giving nasty governments new tools to censor, surveil, and manipulate their populations. I agree with the majority of their analysis, though they stay at such a macro, sweeping-landscape level that the essay doesn't end up going beyond overbroad generalizations backed up with reference to the usual examples-- Iran in '09, M-Pesa, A Million Voices Against FARC, you know the stories.

What I might have expected from this pair of authors was a reflection on the role of Google and other internet companies in this new world-- an explanation of their own foreign policy. To be sure, since global corporations existed, they have played a significant role in international affairs: think United Fruit, Blackwater, Exxon-Mobil. But for corporations in the information business-- an inherently political business, as Schmidt and Cohen point out-- their respective "foreign policies" can dramatically affect the political course of states both authoritarian and democratic, and the trajectory of political freedom around the world.

Schmidt and Coehn are, of course, acutely aware of all this, and that comes through in their piece. But rather than offering their take on the fascinating, important, and largely unexplored question of how information companies should approach their role in global politics, the conclusions of the essay are effectively advice to the U.S. government on how to craft foreign policy in the information age.  The big arguments and many of the supporting examples of their piece are no different from the arguments and examples that that made up Secretary Hillary Clinton's January speech on Internet Freedom-- a speech Cohen was closely involved in crafting while working on the State Department's policy planning staff.

Cohen was advocating for all these same arguments up through his departure from the State Department in September.  And now that he's landed at Google Ideas, we get an essay from him and the CEO of Google advocating for what is already, in effect, enshrined in the State Department's policy.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's just odd, no? And it probably doesn't help perceptions in Washington that Google is too close to our executive branch.

On a somewhat more substantive level, the essay seems to jump back and forth between extolling the power of new technologies and warning against their dangers. One representative passage:

Connection technologies will add to the strains of less developed societies -- forcing them to become more open and accountable while also giving governments new tools to constrain opposition and become more closed and repressive. There will be a constant struggle between those striving to promote what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "the freedom to connect" and those who view that freedom as inimical to their political survival.

There's something to this. I argued in a blog post a few months back that the arrival of connection technologies in less developed countries wouldn't necessarily presage openness and democracy, but it would force governments to make a choice. Activists and civil society will have new, more powerful tools at their disposal to fight for liberal change, and governments will have to either accept that change, or go in the opposite direction and crack down. 

Schmidt and Cohen predict that "Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority."  That may be true once or twice, but governments aren't going to keep getting fooled.  It's hard to imagine the Iraninan government being surprised by the role of cell phones and social media in the next uprising.  Same goes for China, or Vietnam, or Egypt, or any other government that has more or less figured it out.

But the stakes are high in the less-connected, somewhat-democratic states that have yet to reckon with the change that technology is bringing. China has a model of information-control that they're marketing aggressively in the developing world, and for governments presented with pressure from within, the decision to close their societies and close information access is an easy and attractive one. For the sake of human rights, but also for the sake of American interests in a more democratic world, it's important that the U.S. and other democratic states present their alternative of openness and information freedom.

After reading their piece, I think Schmidt, Cohen and I are on the same page on that.  As is, I'm glad to say, the U.S. State Department. Someday soon, I hope to tackle questions around the foreign policy of information corporations. We caught a glimpse of Google's evolving idea of their role in the world earlier this year, when the company explained their withdrawal from China, but there are still a lot of open questions...