Feb 17, 2016 ยท 3 minutes

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about Google’s Jared Cohen.

Specifically we were talking about Cohen’s speech at Chatham House where he proposed a “digital counterinsurgency,” forcing terror groups like ISIS off the public web.

Pando readers may recognise Cohen’s name from our earlier story about his time at the State Department where, a Wikileaks cable revealed, he had been tasked with convincing Afghan telcos to move their cell towers on to US bases.

Given Cohen's past work implementing US foreign policy, I suggested to my friend that perhaps, just perhaps, we should be more than a little concerned that he now seemed to be proposing that Google should build tools which seek to ban from the public Internet those people who the government has deemed undesirable.

In other words, that Cohen appeared to be proposing that Google turn into a private arm of the US State Department. His comments were followed up by another Google Ideas colleague, Yasmin Green, who suggested that Google might manipulated advertisements to "connect, distract, disrupt, and maybe sell a different product" to Isis supporters.

Green was formerly employed as a “senior consultant” by Booz Allen Hamilton, the US intelligence contractor which formerly employed Edward Snowden.

My friend told me I was being paranoid. And she had a point. Cohen was head of “Google Ideas,” a blue sky think tank with no actual role in creating Google’s policy. There was no suggestion that any of those ideas would become formal Google policy. Also, he was proposing combatting ISIS -- hardly a goal unique to the US State Department. Was I seriously suggesting Google shouldn’t try to come up with ideas to help fight terrorism?

Fair. Fair. Fair.

Yesterday, however, Cohen and Google went further than “ideas.” Quite a lot further.

Writing on Medium, Eric Schmidt announced that Google Ideas will henceforth be known as Jigsaw. Cohen will become Jigsaw’s President.

Here’s how Schmidt described the new arm:

The team’s mission is to use technology to tackle the toughest geopolitical challenges, from countering violent extremism to thwarting online censorship to mitigating the threats associated with digital attacks.

In other words, Cohen and his team will now actively be channeling Google resources and technology into tackling “the toughest geopolitical challenges”, as defined by a guy who previously worked for the US State Department. Whether you agree with US foreign policy, and cyber policy, or not, this is a big, big deal. For one thing, it positions Google as an explicitly political organization. The word “political” is right there in “geopolitical.”  

Second of all, it positions Google firmly as an American corporation, furthering American (and more broadly Western) goals, as opposed to a company on a mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

As such, they just made it much, much easier for the governments of places like Russia, China and much of the middle east to restict access on the grounds of national security. Imagine if a Russian search engine with a huge existing global footprint were to suddenly hire a former foreign ministry official to build geopolitical tools that reflected Russian foreign and security policy. How welcome would such tools be in America? How quickly would you delete your account?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Uber’s “head of Uber Military” Robert Gates (aka former CIA director Robert Gates) who publicly proposed that tech companies should work with intelligence agencies to provide backdoors to encryption software.

Paranoia or not, this is starting to look like a trend.