Why is Google picking a fight with the mafia?
Last week's Google gathering on how to combat organized crime garnered headlines, but many questions remain unanswered.
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Google's power to convene was also evident and, like many conferences, may have been the biggest takeaway for the rest of us. Fighting organized crime requires coordination across numerous platforms and agencies, and Google brought them to one place to trade smiles, business cards, and ideas for working together.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of the participants, me included, felt like we'd been invited to hang with the coolest kids on the block. So afraid of the popular kids were we, that Twitter activity around the event (#infosummit2012) was at a minimum and utterly devoid of the snarky and caustic commentary that makes covering such conferences so fun (almost to the point where we could have been our own case study in self-censorship).
Why is Google picking this fight?
But the underlying, and unspoken, question during the conference was just what is Google gaining from picking a fight with organized crime. And as it is for numerous Google initiatives (collecting information on us to hone their search engine, scanning books, etc.), the answer remains somewhat elusive.
For starters, Google Ideas is a strange entity. Google says it's a think/do tank, but it may be competing for attention within its own company. It is one of at least three Google outside initiatives, which also include Google for Nonprofits, and Google.org. It is populated with mostly non-engineers and has its offices in New York City.
Its top two, Jared Cohen and Scott Carpenter, are former US State Department officials who are more Beltway than Silicon Valley, and that is where they think their audience is. Cohen and Schmidt, for example, penned their platform editorial for the "Illicit Networks" campaign in the Washington Post.
Last year's inaugural Google Ideas' conference was about terrorist networks. And when quizzed about why they picked organized crime for this year's, Google Ideas team members said they have "complete" autonomy to decide on the themes they will tackle, before going to the upper echelons for the green light.
But while "Illicit Networks" is a sexy, headline-grabbing topic, it does not come without risks. Schmidt focused his comments about what actions are needed in Mexico, but the bigger risk may be needling North Korea, and by default, North Korea's only ally on the planet, China. The conference included 10 North Korean defectors, five of whom told horrifying stories of what Google called a "mafia state," only partly skirting the elephant in the room -- China's tolerance and perhaps participation in these activities.
About making connections
In general terms, conference organizers emphasized that the event was about connecting different worlds -- those on the proverbial "front lines" of fighting illicit trafficking with talented engineers.
"That's a marriage we want to make happen," Google Ideas' head Cohen said during one interlude.
In some instances, this courtship was already in full swing, Poire's and Schmidt's synchronized speeches being the most obvious example. But ICIJ and Palantir, which has a pro bono arm to work with the less endowed, were even further along in their relationship.