Google Ideas exploring how technology can address global troubles

SAN FRANCISCO —Google Inc. is taking up the fight against global criminal networks.

That might seem an unlikely pursuit, even for a company that has experimented with self-driving cars and alternative energy. But the two-day “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition” summit, which begins Tuesday in Los Angeles and aims to shine a light on the shadowy world of drug cartels, opium smugglers, money launderers, organ harvesters and human traffickers, is part of an ongoing effort to explore how technology can be used to address humanity’s most intractable problems.

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Last year, Google gathered more than 80 former gang members, right-wing extremists, jihadists and militants to huddle with survivors of terrorism and violence, academics and other experts to brainstorm solutions to fight violent extremism. One outcome of that effort is an online social network for perpetrators of terrorist attacks and their victims.

The summits are the work of Google Ideas. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt recruited former State Department staffer Jared Cohen 18 months ago to create the “think/do tank.” The concept came out of conversations Schmidt had with Cohen after taking part in a 2009 technology delegation that Cohen led to Iraq. Cohen, co-writing a book with Schmidt due out early next year, runs Google Ideas with a staff of six out of Google’s New York office.

It’s not new for Google to think beyond its borders. But its foray into some of the most troubling issues in world affairs has heated up debate over whether Google Ideas is daring to reshape the role of multinational corporations as global citizens or whether it’s just another expression of Silicon Valley hubris.

For its part, Google says it has a responsibility not just to its shareholders, but to the citizens of the world, many of whom are its customers. Global criminal networks claim hundreds of thousands of lives and cost an estimated $1 trillion each year, Schmidt said.

“We are trying to move the ball forward,” Schmidt said in an interview. “It seems to me if we can increase awareness of illicit networks, that in and of itself is progress.”

Among the participants at this week’s summit is a young woman sold as a slave at age 7 and a former child soldier from Uganda. Also taking part are former trafficked sex workers and forced laborers. They will be joined by former arms dealers and defectors from North Korea who worked as counterfeiters and traffickers, as well as government officials and prominent executives, engineers and academics.

Observers say it’s still unproved whether Google can play a meaningful role in world affairs, but few quibble with Google’s efforts.

“I don’t think the summit is going to solve the problem of illicit networks, but I don’t think it’s meant to. Google has the money to do it, and an interest in doing it, and to the extent that the world is more networked, the better,” said Matthew Levitt, who directs the counterterrorism program Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cohen, a former aide to secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton who focused on counter-terrorism and radicalism, was part of a team at the State Department that brainstormed unconventional ways to bring diplomacy into the digital age.

He left Washington for New York to practice what he calls 21st century statecraft at Google, where he could harness the power and resources of the tech giant. He says bringing together people who study illicit networks and those who have been their victims can break down silos and help lead to solutions. He and Schmidt traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico to learn more about these criminal networks.

“We have no illusions about the fact that technology on its own doesn’t fix these problems,” Cohen said in an interview. “Google is able to get people in the room. Playing that facilitating role is incredibly important.”