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APB Speaker Jared Cohen, President of Jigsaw, Works to Build Technology to Protect Vulnerable Populations

01 Apr 2016

Google and Obama Administration Connect Over Cuba

When President Barack Obama was working secretly to restore diplomatic and business relations with Cuba two years ago, he got some help from an unlikely place.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and other company executives, with encouragement from the White House, traveled to Havana in June 2014 to talk with the Cuban government about the benefits of Internet access. When he returned, Mr. Schmidt called for an end to the trade embargo.

The White House didn’t tell Google, now a unit of Alphabet Inc., about the secret negotiations with Cuba. But by the time Mr. Obama announced that December the U.S. would restore diplomatic ties, Google had established a toehold in the island nation by rolling out versions of its popular search engine and other Internet offerings.

On Monday, during the first full day of Mr. Obama’s historic trip to Havana, the president announced that Google had reached a deal to open a temporary demonstration project in Havana to showcase some of its Internet products.

“We hope to have the chance to offer more services to the Cuban people in the future,” said Brett Perlmutter, a Google executive who traveled to Cuba this week, in a blog post after the announcement.

During the Obama presidency, Google’s foreign interests have frequently aligned with those of the administration. Google’s visit to Havana helped the White House familiarize the Cuban government with U.S. companies and the benefits of the Internet. Mr. Obama’s effort to lift the embargo has begun opening for Google a potential new market of more than 10 million customers.

Many U.S. businesses, including some of Google’s competitors, are working hard to take advantage of new opportunities in Cuba. It isn’t unusual for U.S. corporations to work with the State Department to secure big business deals abroad, or to lobby the Commerce Department to negotiate trade pacts that open new markets. Google says it never lobbied the administration to end the embargo.

What makes Google’s efforts around the globe unusual is the involvement of the company and its executives in places where the State Department faces tough challenges, including North Korea, Iraq and Cuba. That stems from Google’s professed interest in promoting Internet access as a way to give people around the globe, especially in repressive regimes, access to new ideas and information.

A State Department spokesman said the department “engages with many U.S. companies, as appropriate, to ensure we are advancing U.S. economic interests around the world,” and that its relationship with Google was no different.

New markets
Roughly one-third of the world’s population has access to the Internet. The remainder is a potential market for Google’s Internet and advertising business.

The U.S. government believes that providing people with Internet access will help promote democracy around the world by enhancing communication and exposing people to American-style enterprise and commerce. Nevertheless, it hasn’t always welcomed Google’s efforts. The State Department, for example, said a 2013 visit by Google executives to North Korea was “not a great idea.”

Some unusual theories have emerged overseas about Google’s intentions and government ties. In Cuba, after Mr. Schmidt’s June 2014 visit to Havana, a professor at a university visited by the Google executives was quoted by a state-run publication saying that “it wasn’t Google’s technical wing that came; it was the political wing, which is an extension of the U.S. State Department.”

A Communist Party newspaper in China has called Google the new opium, writing that “in the Internet age, Google uses its monopoly of Internet information searches to sell American values and assist America in building its hegemony.”

The State Department spokesman said that the “suggestion that any private company is an extension of the U.S. State Department reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how a free-market democracy functions.”

Google has a substantial presence in Washington, and its ties to the Obama administration are extensive. Google employees have been big contributors to Mr. Obama’s campaigns and is one of the top corporate spenders on lobbying, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. An analysis of White House visitor logs shows that Google lobbyists visit more frequently than many of its rivals. Many former Google employees currently work in the administration.

Google’s efforts in Cuba began through a unit, called Jigsaw, that builds technology “to protect vulnerable populations and defend against the world’s most challenging security threats,” according to the company’s website. It is run by a former State Department official, 34-year old Jared Cohen, whose career has straddled Google and Washington.

When Mr. Cohen was working at State under Hillary Clinton, he joined a delegation to Iraq that included Mr. Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive, and other executives from tech companies. Google later announced a partnership with the Iraqi government to start the country’s first YouTube channel. The company also helped digitize the collection at Iraq’s National Museum.

Mr. Cohen helped draft the State Department’s “21st-Century Statecraft” Initiative, which called for using social media and digital technology to achieve diplomatic goals. In January 2010, Mr. Cohen arranged for Mrs. Clinton to host a dinner at the State Department for Mr. Schmidt and other tech executives to discuss technology and diplomacy.

The next month, Mr. Cohen and a colleague, Alec Ross, flew to Google’s headquarters for a public discussion with Mr. Schmidt. “I like to think of Alec and Jared as our representatives to the government,” Mr. Schmidt said during the session. “We consider them some of the best friends of Google.” Messrs. Cohen and Ross declined to comment.