from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Google Ideas Summit: Some Reflections

Soldiers stand guard next to narcotics wrapped in ten thousand brown and silver packages on display in Tijuana (Jorge Duenes/Courtesy Reuters).

July 19, 2012

Soldiers stand guard next to narcotics wrapped in ten thousand brown and silver packages on display in Tijuana (Jorge Duenes/Courtesy Reuters).
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The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) partnered with Google Ideas and the Tribeca Film Festival to convene a major summit on “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition” (INFO) in Los Angeles, California, that explored the potential of technology to “expose, map, and disrupt” illicit networks around the world, and to empower individuals, civil society, governments, and corporations to fight back. These closing remarks were delivered at the INFO summit on Wednesday, July 18.

I have worked at the Council on Foreign Relations for four years, and this is without a doubt the most exciting initiative I have worked on during that time. On behalf of CFR, I want to thank Jared Cohen and the whole Google Ideas team for their incredible work in putting on this INFO Summit—and inviting us to collaborate on it.

It is hard to imagine any other company pulling off what you have accomplished here—to convene in one place the world’s leading investigative journalists, premier computer engineers, current and former anticrime fighters, and, most poignantly and inspirationally, survivors who have transcended their own suffering at the hands of illicit networks to fight for a better world.

It was a bold move for Google to take on this agenda, given the potential risks—and the expectations you have now created. But after listening to Eric Schmidt speak about using technology to ensure “freedom from fear,” it is clear that Google is a different sort of company.

Now only a madman would try to summarize what we have learned over these two extraordinary days. I’ll just offer a few reflections based on insights we heard from this stage and in the labs.

The summit confirmed a few assumptions we had going into this project:

  • The illicit economy is pervasive. It is not something that takes place on the margins of global commerce—it is deeply embedded in globalization. And each of us here is linked to it, wittingly or unwittingly, by the choices we make—whether it is doing something complicit, like buying illegal drugs or pirated goods, or simply purchasing goods, like clothes or food, whose supply chains depend on slave labor.

  • When it comes to data on the illicit, we are often flying blind. We hear lots of numbers tossed around about the scope of money laundering or human trafficking. But much is pure guesswork. This is partly inevitable. Unlike Fortune 500 companies, cartels do not publish quarterly reports. But it is also because where data exists, we have often lacked the tools to sift through it and connect the dots.

  • Illicit networks flourish in the darkness, where corruption is the norm and transparency is absent. This problem is most acute in so-called “mafia states,” where the government has become a full-fledged criminal enterprise—of which the “soprano state” of North Korea is the most glaring example. But no country is exempt from corruption. And where transparency is lacking, there is no way for citizens to fight back.

  • The problem of illicit networks is simply too massive, too complex, for national governments to handle alone. Nimble criminal networks can hopscotch across sovereign jurisdictions and evade lumbering law enforcement efforts. Successful approaches will require more effective multilateral cooperation and stronger global institutions like INTERPOL. They require new, creative partnerships with the private sector and civil society. And these need to be bottom-up, not simply top-down.

The good news from this summit is that illicit networks are not invincible. Forces of opposition do exist—and they can be mobilized in new, creative ways.

Now, I often feel like the last analog guy in a digital world. But over the past two days I have seen time and again how we can harness information technology to combat illicit networks.

  • We have witnessed the power of film to put a face on the victims of human slavery—and provide survivors with a voice to tell their own, compelling stories.

  • We have seen how data-mining technologies can help investigative journalists expose illicit networks—from the global trade in body parts to the financing of Somali piracy.

  • We have heard how engineers can help banks and regulators track flows of dirty money, name and shame miscreants, and shut down the world’s laundering centers.

  • We have learned how risk assessment tools can reveal vulnerabilities in the transportation infrastructure—and harden the world’s chokepoints for trade and travel, from Dubai Ports to the Panama Canal.

  • We have watched network analysts map the growing convergence among criminals, narcotraffickers, terrorists and insurgents.

  • Finally, we have seen how social media and crowdsourcing can empower beleaguered citizens to report crime and violence, without placing their own lives at risk—and allow exploited workers draw global attention to sweatshop labor and slavery conditions.

So yes, we all know technology is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. But it is a weapon that we cannot afford to leave in the hands of criminals, while we unilaterally disarm.

Now, before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s remember that our work has just started at this summit. I like to think that Google Ideas has created a new, licit network. And it is our job to keep that network alive and vibrant, to leave here committed to empowering the forces of opposition.

Yesterday from this podium, Eric Schmidt invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt, so it is only appropriate to close with a well-known phrase from Winston Churchill, who attended a few summits of his own with President Roosevelt.

This summit is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, at best, the end of the beginning.

The Council looks forward to working with Google Ideas, Tribeca Films, and all of you on this agenda in the months and years ahead.

Thank you so much.

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