Doing What Government Can’t: Google Enters the Foray of Counterterrorism

By Miranda Sumey

When it comes to the Internet, there doesn’t seem to be much left that Google hasn’t already accomplished: it’s the largest search engine on Earth, one of the top cloud email providers, a key player in the mapping and geospatial industry, a major social network provider, a popular web browser, and a competitive smartphone platform. Google’s portfolio is a behemoth. Having virtually conquered the online world, Google’s latest foray crosses the digital Rubicon and enters reality: it’s taking on a new challenge in targeting and reversing violent extremism.  
 
Through sheer size and market saturation, Google has become arguably one of the most powerful and influential nonstate actors the world has ever seen. In some of its latest projects, Google has entered the geopolitical and international diplomacy spheres long within the purview of nation-states, such as tracking global arms trade, mapping structures and relationships of terrorist networks, monitoring global trends in human trafficking, and acting as a sort of global censor. In a new form of cyber statecraft, Google seeks to evolve and expand its role on the world stage. 
 
Jared Cohen, a former U.S. Department of State official and a proponent of “digital diplomacy,” joined the Google team in October of 2010 to help launch Google Ideas. A self-styled “think/do tank,” Google Ideas began with a trio of projects focusing on combating radicalization and extremism, taking on illicit drug networks, and surveying fragile states. It premised its new endeavors on the hope that technology can work to prevent new radicals from cropping up, while the government can focus its energy on traditional, physical solutions to terrorism – namely, killing, capturing, or otherwise incapacitating the bad guys. This two-pronged approach, they hoped, would break the cycle of extremism among would-be radicals. Google’s network Against Violent Extremism seeks to spark a global conversation about using technology to prevent the spread of terrorist ideology and de-radicalize youth the world over. Since its first summit in 2011, Against Violent Extremism has worked with an impressive array of politicians, activists, and even former radicals, such as Maajid Nawaz, an ex-member of Islamist group Hizb-al-Tahrir, to reframe the issue of counter-radicalization. The thinking, they claim, is that technology can provide an outlet for angry and violent youth to channel their emotions towards more productive ends than terrorism. Presently, AVE operates as a sort of online social network for at-risk youth and features a number of resources, such as videos, articles, and information about various member projects geared towards countering extremist propaganda. [1]

A key challenge for Google as it continues their venture is measuring its own success. How can they track the absence of radicalization, an already marginal percentage of the wider world of religion and ideology? Assessing the number of people who could potentially have carried out a violent act but didn’t because of technology will prove astoundingly difficult, even for a company as well-resourced as Google. While the government may be able to quantify how many actual attacks it has prevented, it’s far more problematic to extrapolate the number of bad beliefs that Google has quelled. 
 
Further complicating matters is the current debate over internet surveillance. Though the long-term future of Google Ideas remains to be seen, it will come as no surprise if the recent revelations of NSA surveillance significantly alter its course. As the public recoils from the idea of cyber surveillance, a new book by Cohen and Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt may prove to be a turn-off for Google users. “We’ll use computers to run predictive correlations from huge volumes of data to track and catch terrorists, but how they are interrogated and handled thereafter will remain the purview of humans and their laws,” they write.[2] The thought of Google collaborating with the government when it comes to users’ personal data deeply offends many Americans’ sense of Constitutional respect.

As Google attempts to tackle tough questions on the Internet and society, the lines between business and politics continue to blur. While Google’s motives may be more political than some would like, Google is nonetheless a strategic partner for the government in its efforts at counterterrorism. Google is uniquely poised to reach an audience that government simply can't: Internet users all across the world. No other company wields such an enormous amount of potential power, placing Google in a precarious but advantageous position as it attempts to use that power with the intention of doing good. The key to a successful partnership requires carefully thought-out privacy protections, and focusing on de-radicalization rather than assuming a role of law enforcement or intelligence. Human drivers must remember that technology is not a panacea. 

The Global War on Terror has proven itself to be an infinite loop: each time the United States neutralizes one terrorist, a new generation is ready and waiting to take his or her place. If Google can harness its own strengths to avoid getting caught in an NSA-type surveillance scandal and instead overtly provide an outlet for constructive and proactive prevention of radicalization, it could prove an incredible tool for quashing terrorism at its root.