Google Ideas head warns of a ‘balkanization of the web’

Jared Cohen foresees a time when states will have two foreign and domestic policies: one for the physical world and one for cyberspace

Google Ideas head Jared Cohen (photo credit: Google)
Google Ideas head Jared Cohen (photo credit: Google)

In June 2012 with the help of an unnamed source in the Obama administration, David E. Sanger of the New York Times published a great scoop: finally confirming that the Stuxnet worm — a computer virus that was set up to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — was the brainchild of both the US and Israeli governments.

At the time of its conception it was the most advanced cyber attack anywhere on the planet.

Jared Cohen, the 31-year-old director of Google Ideas, tells me how Stuxnet is a perfect example of how cyber war is going to dominate global politics for the coming decades.

“Cyberspace is not a parallel universe,” he explains “It’s really just an extension of the world that we know today. This inevitably means that we could see a balkanization of the web, along similar boundaries and borders we already see in the physical world.”

“States are going to have to organizationally adapt to this. They will now have two foreign policies and two domestic policies: one for the physical world and one for the cyberspace. And they won’t always look the same.”

Cohen and I are chatting — via a webcam through the medium of a Google Hangout. We’re discussing “The New Digital Age,” a book he has recently co-written with the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.

New Digital Age

As an additional five billion people come online in the next decade, both authors advise on how they think states should prepare for this seismic shift in the geopolitical landscape.

They ask important questions like: How will states continue to operate in both the cyber and physical world? And can technology assist third world countries to improve their economies?

The book presents an interesting, if somewhat biased argument: tilting slightly in favor of the global corporate culture where both authors’ interest lie.

As developing countries bring unprecedented numbers of people online in the next decade, Cohen stresses that their autocratic governments will attempt to censor the web. This will be in accordance with how these despots want to keep their vision of the physical world intact.

“The Internet is the world’s largest ungoverned space,” he explains. “Therefore the concern is that like-minded people will form together and edit the web. So you can imagine states banding together to edit [a version of the web] based on Sharia law. This is a very dark example.”

As Cohen is also conducting publicity for the book on behalf of Eric Schmidt, the interview process begins to get quite tedious. At times he starts to sound like a public relations mouthpiece for the world’s largest digital company.

He answers many of the questions I put to him with phrases like “we believe,” and “Eric and I.” Such an outcome seems like a wasted opportunity, considering Cohen’s impressive CV.

‘The Internet is the world’s largest ungoverned space’

The young Connecticut native is currently director of Google Ideas, a think tank set up by Google dedicated to understanding global challenges by applying technological solutions.

He has also served as a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where he has worked as a close adviser with two former Secretaries of States: Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. In this role he focused on the Middle East, South Asia, and counter-terrorism.

As our conversation moves into his area of expertise, Cohen loosens up a little, begins to speak from experience, and drops the corporate-speak-script.

He explains how extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah potentially stand to gain more popularity in the coming years, through the use of technology.

This would be done, he says, by aiding the local population through the use of smart-phones-apps, which would offer services like health-care and mobile money exchanges.

Cohen says from his own experience working for the US Government on foreign envoys in the Middle East, he is aware how powerful these apps could become.

‘I’ve seen first hand how Hezbollah and Hamas win the hearts and minds of locals through these handouts’

“I’ve seen first hand how Hezbollah and Hamas win the hearts and minds of locals through these handouts: basic social services, water, electricity, and so on, that their government can’t provide. Ideology then becomes associated with these handouts.”

But Cohen believes that extremist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda will also suffer as connectivity to the Internet increases across the Arab world.

“Terrorists thrive on a world where they can operate off the grid,” he says. “But in near the future, they will find out they cannot operate in places like the caves of Tora Bora and will have adapt to technology. In some cases this may make them more efficient, but it also means that they are going to leave a data trail.”

He backs up this claim by recalling a trip he made on a diplomatic trip in 2009 to Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Afghanistan.

“There were all these Taliban ringleaders who were coordinating terrorist attacks on the outside of the prison. When I went inside into the cellblock, when they had left, these guys just left their phones and SIM cards lying on the ground: Think about how incriminating that is for everybody that these terrorists have been working with?”

‘It used to be a case of you capture a terrorist, you interrogate them, and find out who they are working for. Now you just get their SIM card’

“It used to be a case of you capture a terrorist, you interrogate them, and find out who they are working for. Now you just get their SIM card.”

In 2007 Cohen wrote a book called “Children of Jihad.” It documented his experience as a Jewish American travelling around Iraq, Iran and Syria. The highlights include a random encounter with members of Hezbollah in a fast-food restaurant; a moving visit to a Palestinian refugee camp; as well as an exciting entrance, and scary exit from Iraq.

When he was conducting interviews for the book, Cohen kept his political opinions — as a Jewish American and keen supporter of Israel — to a minimum, he says. He did, however, discover some interesting aspects to Arab culture that he wasn’t aware of previously.

“It turns out that [all the Muslims I met in the Middle East] were very curious about Judaism as a faith. We had a lot of conversations about things that were similar between the Shia faith and Judaism. I was also surprised by the number of Hezbollah people who were learning Hebrew.”

Whether he is traveling as a diplomat, author, or spokesperson for Google, Cohen says he is always deeply proud of the Jewish tradition that he comes from.

“I’ve never actually had problems with being Jewish in the Middle East. At the same time it doesn’t mean I was flaunting it everywhere. But I would never want to deny or lie about my faith either.”

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