Inside Alphabet’s Jigsaw, the powerful tech incubator that could reshape geopolitics

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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Google has never wanted to be an ordinary company. From its original motto, “Don’t be evil,” to last year’s updated mantra “Do the right thing,” it’s always styled itself as an organization with goals that are both more ambitious and more altruistic than the usual profit-focused corporate motivations. Among the strongest indicators of this mindset is its tech incubator, Jigsaw—launched earlier this year, in conjunction with the company’s reorganization into Alphabet, with the goal of tackling “geopolitical challenges.”

So the world’s second-most valuable corporation is openly trying to influence international affairs. That’s interesting. As a follower of Jigsaw (and one of the approximately five people who finished Julian Assange’s 224-page manifesto on the incubator), I’ve read plenty of conspiracy theories about empire-building—not to mention endless Google press releases regurgitated into puff pieces. But Jigsaw is still not very well understood, and neither are its politics.

And so I went to visit the company’s New York office in Chelsea this summer, featuring, among other things, the largest collection of sparkling waters in human history. I was there to learn more about what Jigsaw is really about. Even more than its specific products, I wanted to get a handle on how the Alphabet incubator sees its own role at a time of great technological and social change—and understand the political philosophy behind its choices.

Jigsaw’s origin story

About six years ago, Google was encountering thorny ethical issues across many of its businesses—for example, how to handle YouTube videos from extremist preachers, and whether to continue cooperating with government censorship efforts in countries like China. And so Jigsaw’s predecessor, the “think/do tank” Google Ideas, was created with the goal of thinking proactively about the relationship between geopolitics and technology. Jared Cohen, a former State Department staffer, was tapped by Google chairman Eric Schmidt to lead the project.

According to a Jigsaw representative, this year’s relaunch recognized an evolution in the technical complexity of the incubator’s products. Google Ideas began with low-tech initiatives, like building an information-sharing network for former violent extremists turned activists. But its newer tools draw more heavily on Alphabet’s computing power and engineering talent.

One such product is Project Shield, which provides human rights activists, election monitors, and independent news organizations with protection against cyberattacks. (At present, the vast majority of Project Shield users are independent news outlets.) Other products include a real-time interactive global map of cyberattacks and a tool for forensic video analysis of violent incidents in war zones. There’s also the Investigative Dashboard, which helps journalists search business databases in order to more easily investigate corruption and money laundering. And the Redirect Method is a new tool that attempts to divert young people from being radicalized online by placing “debunking” videos and sponsored advertising alongside content and searches typically related to the Islamic State.

Using the term “incubator” to describe such efforts might sound odd, but Jigsaw really embraces the model. It retains a large research team similar to a think tank. But as it makes its products available, it entertains in-house, external partner, and for-profit business models—whatever promotes user growth. So far, their traction is hard for outsiders to gauge. Citing users’ security, Jigsaw doesn’t release their numbers or locations.

The Jigsaw philosophy

While these projects are diverse, Jigsaw claims they all spring from a few core values. Put simply, the incubator believes in universal access to the internet. It places great value on the ability of individuals to inform themselves and speak freely; its opposition to government censorship is passionate and canonical. And it sees distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks—often used by governments and opponents to silence journalists by disabling their websites—as a bug in the functioning of the internet.

 From a sociopolitical standpoint, Jigsaw seems to embody a form of classical liberalism. Broadly speaking, while 20th-century liberalism was interested in positive liberties—the capacity to act on one’s free will, secured through building blocks like education and health care—the classical liberalism of the 19th century focused on protecting liberties from infringement. The main goal was to ensure that people were free from such restrictions as imprisonment, censorship, and the loss of property.

Unlike, say, the Gates Foundation, none of Jigsaw’s interventions address positive liberty issues like stamping out poverty and disease. Jigsaw’s representative broadly agreed with my “classical liberal” characterization, but added that their focus has been shaped both by their philosophical inclination and their comparative advantage. Google (now Alphabet) is an internet company, after all—they are arguably better positioned to solve problems of electronic information flows than carbon emissions or disease transmission.

At first glance, Jigsaw’s work on corruption and violent extremism are a little more quixotic. Those initiatives are not about de-bugging the internet so much as they are an attempt to use technology to fix the kinds of real-world problems governments still struggle to address. But in another sense, it does fit with a classical liberal outlook—one which envisions governments protecting individuals’ liberties through a strictly limited set of functions, like the provision of law and order.

The California effect

Some critics argue that Jigsaw is also fueled by another 19th-century ideology—imperialism. Under an imperialist mindset, the powerful enter a new territory and impose a racial and social hierarchy that gives the invaders unprecedented individual liberties while depriving the native inhabitants of their freedom. The modern imperialist criticism of Jigsaw tends to follow one of two narratives; either Jigsaw is promoting the spread of the free internet primarily to serve a commercial interest (securing new markets for its parent corporation), or it is simply promoting the values of the powerful (Western, capitalist countries in the Anglo-American mold).

Jigsaw’s products, however, suggest it is interested in extending liberties to vulnerable populations, not denying them. Don’t get me wrong: There is an important debate to be had about how Alphabet conceptualizes its broader political responsibilities. Jigsaw is part of that conversation by extension. But most critics of the incubator’s “imperialism” appear to have paid only passing attention to what Jigsaw’s products do and who they serve. Jigsaw is sympathetic to many of the same values as Western foreign policy, but it is not picking winners based on ideology. Take Project Shield. For an independent news publication to receive protection from hackers under Project Shield, it must prove only that it is not state-sponsored and is not on a terrorist watch list. (Jigsaw uses several watch lists, not just the American one.) Jigsaw doesn’t screen for democratic, secular, pro-American or pro-Google leanings.

In fact, there’s another ideology that seems much more in keeping with Jigsaw’s worldview. In 1995, the social theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described “the Californian Ideology.” They depicted a Silicon Valley that combined West Coast hippie culture with the tech industry, producing a “profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies” and a strong belief in the self-governing ability of grassroots networks. As a corollary, Silicon Valley tended to be hostile toward traditional state power.

Two decades later, there are strong overtones of this ideology at Jigsaw. The organization seems to trust its chosen users—activists and journalists without state sponsorship—more than it trusts a lot of governments.

Unfortunately, the power structures that preceded the internet—governments, courts, and armies—have so far limited technology’s emancipatory potential. Even if Jigsaw’s users have free speech and access to information, they still have physical selves that can be taxed, threatened, or imprisoned by the state. As the political theorist David Runciman writes, thus far the “internet has not proved to be the autocracy-busting, freedom-generating machine that many hoped.”

Neutrality is a messy business

Jigsaw wants to be politically neutral, but it also wants to make an impact by assisting activists and journalists engaged in the messy business of real-world politics. That is not an easy balance to strike. If its products work, they could have complicated knock-on effects—for example, empowering a regime’s critics to spread their message online, thereby shifting the local balance of power and perhaps even provoking violent unrest.

And so, while Jigsaw is clear on its core values, it could benefit from clarifying its procedural philosophy. Should Jigsaw base its choices simply on whether they go hand in hand with “good” principles, like opposition to censorship, or should its decisions be judged by their consequences? And how might it go about weighing the more distant effects of its tools? Given the broad sweep of its users—for example, news organizations on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict—some Jigsaw critics may even end up wishing for a little more imperial-style discrimination.

Approaching these questions systematically is actually a form of insurance. Jigsaw is certainly thoughtful about the effects of its products today, but in a more ad hoc way. In contrast, humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders recognize that their work in war zones is inherently political, and have developed sophisticated policies defining what neutrality means. Like free speech, providing medical treatment might seem like an obvious good, but Doctors Without Borders has agonized over the consequences of refugee camps the organization set up in Zaire. Although the camps were aimed at a population in distress, they were also used by Huru genocidaires as rear bases during their reconquest of Rwanda.

These are the kinds of considerations that make philosophers bristle when they hear the phrase “don’t be evil.” There’s an undeniable naïveté to the assumption that values like free speech, the meaning of which we debate endlessly in the real world (see: the US Supreme Court over the last century) are simple when applied online.

Jigsaw’s latest project, Conversation AI, is one case in point. Conversation AI combines The New York Times’ enormous data set and machine learning to develop algorithms that help online publishers moderate unwanted comments more effectively. The personal abuse and threats made by “internet trolls” on comment threads are concerning, as several well-placed articles about Conversation AI have pointed out. But it’s worth noting that through this initiative, Jigsaw—the protectors of free speech online—are literally censoring speech on the internet.

This points to the complexity of being “for” values like free speech. Black-and-white choices are rare, and grey areas—where one liberal value comes into tension with another—abound. Jigsaw can make a strong case that censoring some speech is justified in order to protect other users’ right to speak and promote public debate. However, the incubator’s ambiguous status as an organization, somewhere between political and apolitical, has allowed them to dodge explaining their reasoning publicly at all.

The risk of not having a fully realized philosophy is that, when difficult choices arise, the vacuum is filled by the individual political inclinations, gut feelings and media pressure. We have little reason to doubt Jigsaw’s good intentions. But a steady and deliberate approach might help to protect both Jigsaw and the vulnerable populations it serves.

The elephant in the Googleplex

And then there is the $550-billion elephant in the room. Jigsaw fights against the abuse of power, but its parent company is enormously powerful in its own right. Setting aside its economic resources and political influence, Alphabet has acquired a near-monopoly over internet search, a necessity in modern life.

If the company sold access to water or electricity instead of information, it might be regulated like a public utility. But Alphabet tends to shy away from this analogy (though Jigsaw’s representative was surprisingly open to it), preferring to frame itself as an organization that can be trusted because of its commitment to “algorithmic neutrality.” As described by Evgeny Morozov, a leading thinker on the political implications of technology, Google sees itself as an “algorithms-powered neutral intermediary that stands between a given user and the collective mind of the Internet.”

Though Alphabet tries to minimize them by strategic choice of analogy, there are some unchosen public responsibilities involved in being the gatekeeper and guide to the world’s information. The recent debate over “fake news” and its effect on democratic dialogue has focused on Facebook, but it is a harbinger of things to come for tech giants that have gradually evolved into quasi-media companies. It will be interesting to see if Jigsaw suffers from the same blind spot as its parent company; namely, a sensitivity to the accretion and abuse of power by other actors, but a blasé “just-trust-us” approach to its own.

It would be exciting—and a profound rebuff to some critics—if Jigsaw acted as a catalyst for its parent company to reflect more seriously on its broader political responsibilities. Professor Jacob Rentdorff, a specialist in business ethics at Copenhagen Business School, suggests that Alphabet can counter accusations of “ethical white-washing” by making sure the principles behind Jigsaw are “directly integrated into its business and strategy activities.” In other words, Alphabet can avoid accusations of tokenism by making sure Jigsaw is more than a well-resourced token.

So far, everything I have seen of Jigsaw suggests a real determination to help journalists and activists. But the evolution from building human networks to high-tech products—from think tank to incubator—has also meant a drift in mandate.

Google Ideas was created to think about the ethical issues at the intersection of politics and technology. In shifting its focus to a set of external geopolitical ills, Jigsaw may have missed an opportunity to turn its gaze inwards. But it’s not too late for the incubator to reconsider what it really means to “do the right thing.”