Alphabet’s “think tank” is transitioning into an incubator to tackle “geopolitical challenges,” the company’s executive chairman has announced.
Eric Schmidt announced on Tuesday that his company’s Google (GOOGL) Ideas unit has been renamed Jigsaw. Jared Cohen, a Schmidt advisor and former employee at the U.S. State Department, will serve as Jigsaw’s president. In that role, he’ll be tasked with leading the team’s charge 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,” Schmidt said in a statement.
Google Ideas was founded in 2010. Based in New York City, the organization was labeled by Google as a “think tank” focused on developing technology to help people in emerging markets get online for the first time. Cohen was put in charge of Google Ideas when the project launched in 2010.
While Google Ideas was touted as an organization to support disadvantaged people around the world, it couldn’t escape criticism over the years. In 2014, Cohen and Google Ideas were repeatedly targeted by WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange. In an op-ed published in Newsweek that year called “Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems,” the WikiLeaks founder argued Google Ideas was an apparatus for the company to engage in international affairs and use Cohen’s connections with the U.S. government in that effort.
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“Cohen’s directorate appeared to cross over from public relations and ‘corporate responsibility’ work into active corporate intervention in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for states,” Assange said, referring to an e-mail leaked by WikiLeaks claiming to discuss Cohen’s activities as Google Ideas chief. “Jared Cohen could be wryly named Google’s ‘director of regime change.'”
Assange went on to argue the company “gets a free pass” for running Google Ideas.
“Google’s geopolitical aspirations are firmly enmeshed within the foreign-policy agenda of the world’s largest superpower,” Assange said.
For its part, Google engaged for some time with Assange over his ongoing claims against the company and Google Ideas. In an interview with ABC News in 2014, Schmidt called Assange “paranoid about things.” He added that Google has not collaborated with the National Security Agency (NSA), as Assange had claimed, and has gone out of its way to sidestep government intervention in its data.
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“We have taken all of our data, all of our exchanges, and we fully encrypted them so no one can get them, especially the government,” he said at the time.
Since then, Google Ideas has continued on. In his statement on Tuesday, Schmidt said that the company has hired a diverse team aimed at helping the “newest Internet users (who) are coming online in societies where censorship, corruption, or violence are daily realities.”
With Jigsaw, Schmidt and Cohen are expanding their focus to include more international concerns. In addition to taking on the aforementioned “geopolitical challenges,” Schmidt said that the Jigsaw team will “aim to counter money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism.”
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So far, Jigsaw has yielded some results. The team has developed several tools, including one, called Investigative Dashboard, that allows journalists to more easily research criminals and corrupt officials. Another, called Password Alert, aims at safeguarding passwords from hackers. Digital Attack Map “displays the tens of thousands of attacks against the websites of newspapers, businesses and charities every day.”
Looking ahead, Schmidt says that the Jigsaw “technology incubator” will continue to invest in new technologies to help “the world’s most vulnerability populations and to defend against the world’s most challenging security threats.”