Political Animals

The State Department Sidles Up to Silicon Valley

Let's play Six Degrees of Eric Schmidt, shall we?

34336821 The State Department Sidles Up to Silicon ValleyOn her way out of the public sector last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran through a spate of last-minute initiatives, including the Alliance for an Affordable Internet, which seeks to expand Internet access in developing countries where a mere 25 percent of the population (on average) is online.

Although the public-private partnership between the State Department, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Intel, and the World Wide Web Foundation “barely got a mention” at the podium, it warrants closer examination, argues Bloomberg Businessweek.

The initiative also offers a nice occasion to play one of Betabeat’s favorite games: Six Degrees of Eric Schmidt.

For starters, in addition to empowering citizens in poor countries, Businessweek says, the Alliance “could also cement long-term ties between the State Department and the companies—while opening new markets and reaching new customers for Silicon Valley.”

Part of the credit for that initiative goes to 25-year Silicon Valley veteran Ann Mei Chang, who left her role as Google’s senior director for emerging markets last year to move to the State Department as senior advisor for women and technology. Over the past year, Ms. Chang has been brought together diplomats, nonprofits, and companies from the Valley (who lend expertise and seed funding), in order to discuss issues like telecom monopolies and lack of infrastructure in developing countries.

According to Businessweek:

“The idea behind the Alliance is to use corporate and diplomatic power to push foreign governments to change laws and policies—in this case, the obstacles that governments put up to wider Internet penetration.”

Speaking of pushing foreign governments, Ms. Chang currently resides in Nairobi, the city Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt called, “a serious tech hub,” leading the way for Africa. Mr. Schmidt also covered the same ground in his upcoming book “The New Digital Age,” reports the Wall Street Journal:

He imagines that soon an “illiterate Maasai cattle herder in the Serengeti” will use a smartphone to “inquire the day’s market prices and crowd-source the whereabouts of any nearby predators.”

It’s unclear whether the State Department shares all of Mr. Schmidt’s views on Internet evangelism, however. Alec Ross, Ms. Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, expressed doubts about the usefulness of Mr. Schmidt’s recent jaunt to North Korea with Bill Richardson, wise-cracking daughter in tow.

But if the State Department is planning on helping Silicon Valley reach new markets overseas, they might also want to take a closer look at some of the more provacative chapters of Mr. Schmidt’s book, like the part where he and co-author Jared Cohen–who reversed Ms. Chang’s path by going from the State Department to Google Ideas–called China “the world’s most active and enthusiastic filterer of information” and “the most sophisticated and prolific” hacker of foreign companies.

A slightly more candid take than Ms. Clinton’s parting statement: “The Pacific is big enough for all of us and we will continue to welcome China’s rise if it chooses to play a constructive role in the region.”

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