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Watching the Roll-Out of Google Ideas

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, July 11 2011

If you're curious, as we are, about where Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen are going with their Google Ideas think/do-tank, check out this recent profile from the Financial Times. Pegged to a June 26-29 conference in Ireland that Google Ideas convened called the "Summit Against Violent Extremism," (SAVE) the FT report captures both the exuberant ambition of the nascent project and some confusion as well. Unlike Google.org, which is the search giant's philanthropic arm, Google Ideas is part of the company's business operations and strategy division. Its staff of six are based here in New York.

Cohen, who is best known for his time at the State Department, when he asked Twitter to delay a planned maintenance shutdown to not hinder pro-democracy protests after Iran's disputed election, told the Times that Google Ideas “is built on this assumption that technology is part of every challenge in the world and also part of every solution in the world. It empowers people both for good and for ill,” he said. In a blog post describing the SAVE event, he said that "Extremists have taken advantage of new Internet technologies to spread their message. We believe technology also can become part of the solution, helping to engineer a turn away from violence." His goal for the event was "to initiate a global conversation on how best to prevent young people from becoming radicalised and how to de-radicalise others." Stay tuned, he said, "as we attempt to marry ideas and action."

Schmidt told the FT that all of this was part of the company's business model, which he described as “to come up with new ideas to make the world a better place." He added,"The point is that, as a corporation, we’re trying to do more than just serve our shareholders. We’re also literally trying to serve our citizens, our customers.”

However, he also insisted that this did not mean the company was "trying to take a political stand." Instead, he said, "we're trying to take a pro-information and empowerment stand."

This kind of talk from Cohen and Schmidt had the reporter from the FT wondering if Google Ideas wasn't just "the ultimate expression of new tech bubble bravado." And he has a point. Until Schmidt and Cohen have something concrete to show for their efforts, their willingness to make bold statements without much substance behind them will lead to withering comments in the press.

It also might be smart for them to embrace the inherently political nature of what Google Ideas is supposedly trying to do, instead of acting like there's nothing political about a top executive from one of the world's most powerful and disruptive tech companies choosing to engage in exploring public policy questions. Imagine if the CEO of BP or FedEx set up an "Ideas" arm and started hosting conferences on big public problems? There's plenty of room for more contributions to public discourse, including by big corporate players, but it's just silly to act like there's nothing political going on here. (Eric Schmidt reportedly tried to get Google to hide links to his own campaign contributions, according to Steven Levy's "In the Plex" book, so his sensitivity to appearing "political" is obviously already acute.)

What's more, big tech corporations like Google have a special role that distinguishes them from a BP or FedEx, which is that they already help create and frame the boundaries of the networked public sphere in which all these problems and debates unfold. Instead of denying the inherent political-ness of being a de-facto public platform, Google ought to be explicitly trying to embrace it and define workable standards for that role, such as the ones being fostered by the Global Network Initiative (which Google is, to its credit, a member of). Indeed, this is a topic right up Google Ideas' alley--to tackle the hard problem of defining corporate responsibilities to users and the public when they are the makers and shapers of the very places and methods by which public discourse now happens.

The "do" part of Google Ideas could be the most intriguing part of Schmidt and Cohen's venture, since it's much harder to actually take meaningful action about a problem than it is to gather smart people simply to brainstorm. So we'll be watching to see what comes out of summits like the SAVE event (which has yet to post its session videos which has posted the session videos for all to watch, here). Hopefully it will be more than the usual hyper-warmed nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide.