How Jared Cohen, CEO of Google off­shoot Jig­saw, is tak­ing on ISIS, fake news, and toxic trolls to make the in­ter­net—and the world—a safer place

Fast Company - - Contents - By Austin Carr

How a Google off­shoot is tak­ing on ISIS, fake news, and toxic trolls to make the in­ter­net—and the world—safer.

Jared Cohen, the CEO of Jig­saw, sur­veyed the craggy val­ley from the

back of a gray SUV as it wound to­ward the Khy­ber Pass, the moun­tain­ous road­way con­nect­ing Afghanistan and Pak­istan that had be­come a hot­bed of Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. The arid land­scape was beau­ti­ful, but Cohen, who is Jewish and was raised in an af­flu­ent Con­necti­cut sub­urb, knew the ex­cur­sion was risky. This was his fourth visit to Pak­istan. Col­leagues had told Cohen he was in­sane for go­ing—his ran­som in­sur­ance wouldn’t pro­tect him against the fre­quent road­side bombs in the area—but he’d still de­cided to take a 12-hour flight to Dubai, where he caught a con­nec­tion to Lahore and drove to Is­lam­abad and then on to Pe­shawar, in the north of Pak­istan. At the di­rec­tion of Pak­istan’s for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Hina Rab­bani Khar, Cohen’s host, they rode in one car, with a se­cu­rity de­tail fol­low­ing a short dis­tance be­hind to avoid at­tract­ing undo at­ten­tion.

Around noon, they pulled into a vil­lage com­pound, where Cohen, 35, donned a robe and tur­ban, and for the next four hours im­mersed him­self in Pash­tun is­sues. Through Rab­bani Khar’s con­nec­tions, he was able to meet with tribal lead­ers, cler­ics, smug­glers, sur­vivors of drone strikes—any­one who could help him bet­ter grasp the chal­lenges crip­pling the re­gion.

A Rhodes Scholar and for­mer State De­part­ment pol­icy wonk who worked un­der Con­doleezza Rice and Hil­lary Clin­ton, Cohen is flu­ent in Swahili and has jour­neyed to 103 coun­tries, of­ten amid tur­moil. Once, ac­cord­ing to Cohen, he snuck into east­ern Congo by hid­ing in a truck un­der a pile of ba­nanas dur­ing the Great War of Africa. He tells me he’s been kicked out of Syria twice, and men­tions he can’t go back to Cairo af­ter con­spir­acy the­o­ries arose sug­gest­ing that he had a hand in the 2011 Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion.

A self-de­scribed “in­ves­tiga­tive an­thro­po­log­i­cal re­searcher,” Cohen was in Pak­istan act­ing as an at­taché for Jig­saw, the Al­pha­bet sub­sidiary that de­fines it­self as an in­cu­ba­tor build­ing “tools to make the world safer.” It evolved out of Google Ideas, an in­ter­nal think tank Cohen co­founded in 2010 with Eric Sch­midt, the for­mer Google CEO and cur­rent Al­pha­bet ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, to ad­dress geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges with tech­nol­ogy. Face­book and Twit­ter helped spread free ex­pres­sion dur­ing the Arab Spring, and yet so­cial me­dia is also be­ing used to dis­sem­i­nate mes­sages of hate, with ter­ror­ist at­tacks co­or­di­nated on What­sapp and be­head­ings aired on Youtube.

If there’s one core tenet of Cohen’s phi­los­o­phy, it’s that you can’t solve these prob­lems from be­hind a Macbook. Google prides it­self on data and Ai—and Jig­saw does as well—but Cohen’s com­pany also lever­ages anec­dotes and hu­man in­tel­li­gence to in­form its prod­ucts. Cohen and team have ven­tured to Iraq to in­ter­view ISIS de­fec­tors to learn about the group’s on­line mes­sag­ing tac­tics, and to Mace­do­nia to meet with trolls who traf­fic in so­cial me­dia dis­in­for­ma­tion.

With Al­pha­bet’s en­gi­neer­ing re­sources, Jig­saw trans­lates this re­search into in­ter­net tools that com­bat hate speech, de­tect fake news, and de­fend against cy­ber­at­tacks. Cohen’s eight-day visit to Pak­istan in De­cem­ber pro­vided first­hand in­sights into what meth­ods ex­trem­ists are now us­ing to re­cruit new mem­bers on­line, which Jig­saw aims to cir­cum­vent us­ing tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing to counter ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda. The trip also gave him a valu­able net­work of new con­tacts, who were im­pressed an Amer­i­can busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive trekked so far de­spite the safety risks. “You have to be will­ing to show up,” Cohen tells me one day at a gar­den near his Man­hat­tan apart­ment. “To them, I’m no longer some ran­dom per­son in the tech sec­tor—i’m the guy who ate a lamb shank on their blan­ket five min­utes from the Af­pak bor­der.”

Although Cohen’s mis­sion sounds phil­an­thropic, Jig­saw op­er­ates as a busi­ness, no dif­fer­ent from any of Al­pha­bet’s moon­shots. Yet Cohen says there’s no stress on the group to gen­er­ate a profit. For now, its value to the en­ter­prise is the an­cil­lary ben­e­fits of pro­tect­ing Google’s myr­iad other busi­nesses—an­droid, Gmail, Youtube— from the world’s worst dig­i­tal threats. And if, in the process, Jig­saw can help ad­dress some of the most acute un­in­tended con­se­quences of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, all the bet­ter. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask the gov­ern­ment to solve all these prob­lems—they don’t have the re­sources,” says Sch­midt. “The tech in­dus­try has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to get this right.”

Jig­saw’s head­quar­ters are lo­cated on the

sec­ond floor of Man­hat­tan’s Chelsea Mar­ket, reached by a locked stair­well en­trance near a

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask the gov­ern­ment to solve all these prob­lems,” says Eric Sch­midt. “The tech in­dus­try has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to get this right.”

ge­lato stand. Not even Googlers have key-card ac­cess. In­side are the typ­i­cal trap­pings of an Al­pha­bet-funded space—plush noise-can­cel­ing work pods and fruit-fla­vored Hint wa­ter—but Cohen has sub­verted the usual play­ful themes: Con­fer­ence rooms here are named for op­pres­sive states like North Korea and Belarus.

When I meet Cohen in his of­fice one morn­ing in early Au­gust, he’s wear­ing jeans and a black T-shirt, hunched over his desk with a life-size wax fig­ure of Theodore Roo­sevelt look­ing over his shoul­der. Cohen, who has black curly hair and the ever-un­shaven look of a har­ried hedge-fund an­a­lyst, is ob­sessed with Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial his­tory. He is work­ing on a book about tran­si­tions of White House power, and his two-room of­fice is a shrine of POTUS bric-a-brac, along with pro­pa­ganda posters he’s col­lected dur­ing his trav­els to Py­ongyang and Iran and pho­tos of him with world lead­ers, in­clud­ing Pope Fran­cis and King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan.

It’s in­creas­ingly rare to find Cohen at the of­fice. With two young daugh­ters and a life spent jug­gling global sum­mits and for­eign travel, Cohen’s schedule is hec­tic. Friends de­scribe him as a cross be­tween Tintin and Dos Equis’s Most In­ter­est­ing Man, who might be found at the gym in Chelsea with his artist-buddy Jeff Koons, or fal­con hunt­ing with his wife in the UAE. Dana Perino, the Fox News com­men­ta­tor and for­mer White House press sec­re­tary, jokes that he’s the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of #goals, the mil­len­nial hash­tag that de­notes life as­pi­ra­tions. “He’s climb­ing in the Grand Te­tons one day and by the week­end he’s tak­ing his girls to get a pedi­cure,” Perino says. Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, an­other close friend, says, “With Jared, there’s never a mo­ment you run out of things to talk about: He can cover ev­ery­thing from how to put your baby to sleep to how to deal with cy­bert­er­ror­ists.”

Cohen’s jet-set­ting joie de vivre has helped him build an eclec­tic Rolodex, but it’s also in­stru­men­tal to how he learns. “Jared’s never been some tea-sip­ping diplo­mat who learns from a leather chair,” says Alec Ross, the Mary­land gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date who over­lapped with Cohen at the State De­part­ment. “He’s hap­pi­est land­ing in con­flict zones where half the peo­ple around him want to take him for ran­som and the other half want him dead.”

Cohen grew up trav­el­ing. His artist mother and psy­chol­o­gist fa­ther took him on trips to the Mid­dle East and Africa. Once, on a trip to Egypt when he was 10, his par­ents lost him in a crowded sec­tion of Giza and found him mo­ments later atop a stranger’s camel. He was a nerdy kid, with a se­vere fa­cial twitch that made him self-con­scious enough to feel he had to ex­cel at sports in high school in or­der to avoid get­ting made fun of (he was an all-state soc­cer goalie), but travel was his fa­vorite ex­tracur­ric­u­lar, and dur­ing high school he spent sum­mers liv­ing with host fam­i­lies in Thai­land and Tan­za­nia.

By the time he got to Stan­ford, his twitch had gone away, and his frat broth­ers mostly re­mem­ber Cohen as an af­fa­ble guy, though not with­out quirks: His TV was set 24/7 to the news, and he painted large mu­rals de­pict­ing the Rwan­dan geno­cide that dec­o­rated the com­mon area of Theta Delta Chi. He al­ways seemed to be plan­ning his next adventure, like the one where he spent part of his fresh­man-year sum­mer with the Maa­sai peo­ple of Kenya, herd­ing sheep and at times liv­ing off a mix­ture of goat milk and iron-rich dirt. “You have to be a 19-year-old to think that’s a good idea,” Cohen laughs.

In 2003, he won a cov­eted Rhodes Schol­ar­ship and punc­tu­ated his two years at Ox­ford do­ing re­search trips to the Mid­dle East. In Iran, he en­coun­tered youths us­ing mo­bile de­vices and Blue­tooth to skirt the so­ci­ety’s rigid rules, his first taste of dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy in an au­to­cratic coun­try. His re­search (which led to his sec­ond book, Chil­dren of Ji­had) im­pressed Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice, who hired him at 24 to join her staff.

Dur­ing his four years at the State De­part­ment, Cohen earned a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing brash, lead­ing en­voys to in­creas­ingly hos­tile ar­eas to talk with un­likely char­ac­ters—gang­sters, pris­on­ers, pi­rates—even when it went against stan­dard pro­to­col. Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing how tech-savvy ac­tivists were us­ing Face­book to or­ga­nize protests against the long­time in­sur­gent group FARC, Cohen ven­tured to Colom­bia to meet with them—likely the first diplo­matic chan­nel es­tab­lished on a

Friends de­scribe Cohen as a cross be­tween Tintin and Dos Equis’s Most In­ter­est­ing Man, who might be found climb­ing in the Grand Te­tons or prac­tic­ing fal­conry in the UAE.

so­cial net­work in U.S. gov­ern­ment his­tory, he jokes—and soon found him­self op­po­site Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush in a two-hour brief­ing on the global war on ter­ror. When Cohen pre­sented his find­ings, he re­calls, Bush “looked up, then at Condi, then at Cheney, and then back at me and said, ‘That’s awe­some.’ ”

Cohen ap­peared on The Col­bert Re­port at 26 fol­low­ing a New Yorker pro­file, and some ca­reer for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cers re­sented his ris­ing sta­tus, view­ing his ideas about tech­nol­ogy as naive. (Cohen would tell col­leagues he was de­ter­mined to push the State De­part­ment to a point where he could men­tion Twit­ter in meet­ings with­out get­ting laughed at.) But even his eye-rolling de­trac­tors ad­mit he was un­can­nily smart, and his sup­port­ers felt he was em­pa­thetic and ego­less. “Jared looks at things with new eyes,” says Sec­re­tary Rice. “He would come into my of­fice and say, ‘I have an idea, but it might be stupid.’ I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘Jared, don’t start your pre­sen­ta­tion that way.’ ”

Stay­ing on through the tran­si­tion to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Cohen con­tin­ued his work un­der Sec­re­tary Hil­lary Clin­ton—un­til he al­most lost his job. In June 2009, as street demon­stra­tions were heat­ing up in re­ac­tion to the Ira­nian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Cohen caught wind that Twit­ter would be paus­ing its ser­vice for main­te­nance. Con­cerned that the move might quash the vi­ral spread of protests in Tehran, Cohen reached out to Twit­ter co­founder Jack Dorsey and urged him to post­pone the shut­down. Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were livid—cohen’s ac­tion ap­peared to vi­o­late the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of non-in­ter­fer­ence—and, af­ter the story landed in The New York Times, re­calls Ross, then a se­nior ad­viser to Clin­ton, Pres­i­dent Obama is said to have fumed aloud, “Who is Jared Cohen, and why haven’t we fired him yet?”

Clin­ton pro­tected Cohen, and the in­ci­dent even­tu­ally be­came a shin­ing ex­am­ple of what her team was be­gin­ning to re­fer to as “21stcen­tury state­craft,” a par­a­digm shift in diplo­macy that en­cour­aged tak­ing ad­van­tage of grow­ing dig­i­tal in­flu­ences to shape mod­ern geopol­i­tics. By that point, Cohen and Ross had started or­ga­niz­ing what they called tech del­e­ga­tions to see what Sil­i­con Val­ley and Wash­ing­ton could ac­com­plish to­gether over­seas. They cor­ralled tech­nol­ogy lead­ers like Dorsey, prom­i­nent VC Shervin Pi­she­var, and Mitchell Baker of Mozilla to visit places rang­ing from Syria and Mex­ico to Pak­istan and Congo.

What Cohen rev­eled in most was the busi­ness world’s lack of gov­ern­ment con­straints, as he wit­nessed on a 2010 trip to Rus­sia with then–ebay CEO John Don­a­hoe. “We were there to dis­cuss cor­rup­tion and free speech—you can imag­ine how far that gets diplo­mat to diplo­mat,” Cohen says, re­call­ing that Don­a­hoe an­nounced that Rus­sia was too cor­rupt for ebay to con­duct busi­ness there. “Sud­denly the Rus­sian deputy prime min­is­ter wants to fol­low [Don­a­hoe] all the way to the air­port to have an­other con­ver­sa­tion.”

On the very first “techdel,” Cohen brought Eric Sch­midt to Iraq, where the two bonded while wear­ing flak jackets. Cohen was mes­mer­ized by Sch­midt’s in­tel­lect and abil­ity to sug­gest ideas un­likely to have oc­curred to any­one from the State De­part­ment. “Eric was ask­ing things like, ‘Why aren’t you lay­ing fiber-op­tic ca­bles un­der­neath roads when you’re paving them?’ ” Cohen re­calls. “‘Why are you in­vest­ing in low-or­bit satel­lite when ev­ery­one is go­ing to be us­ing mo­bile phones soon?’ ”

About a year later, dur­ing lunch at Dos Caminos in New York, Sch­midt con­vinced Cohen to join Google. Sch­midt didn’t ex­actly know what they would do to­gether, but he knew he wanted to in­vest in Cohen. Sch­midt re­calls think­ing that Cohen had a “scal­able mind,” one that would be of con­se­quence. “Peo­ple like Jared make things hap­pen,” he says. “You want to work with him, for him—to be in his or­bit.” The two soon launched Google Ideas, la­bel­ing it a “think/do tank,” a corny name that led early em­ploy­ees to overem­pha­size the dooooo part loudly, out of fear that it would be­come just an­other ivory tower. “I thought this was go­ing to be an arm’s-length aca­demic ex­er­cise,” says Yas­min Green, an early Ideas em­ployee, whom Cohen re­cruited from Google’s busi­ness fo­cused on sub-sa­ha­ran Africa.

Sources fa­mil­iar with the group’s evo­lu­tion say that Google Ideas was a hodge­podge of peo­ple brain­storm­ing pie-in-the-sky con­cepts, and many ex­pected Cohen to start churn­ing out white pa­pers on net neu­tral­ity and other hot-but­ton pol­icy is­sues at any mo­ment to jus­tify the group’s ex­is­tence. “It was rocky go­ing at first, but he stayed the course,” says New Amer­ica CEO Anne-marie Slaugh­ter, Cohen’s boss at the State De­part­ment who orig­i­nally in­tro­duced him to Sch­midt.

Cohen was still ma­tur­ing as a leader and grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to an even higher-fly­ing life un­der the wing of Sch­midt, and he wasn’t afraid to tell em­ploy­ees in weekly meet­ings about his strug­gles as a man­ager. “So many peo­ple [I know] just want to fig­ure out how they can make a bil­lion dol­lars and run the world, but Jared is not about that at all—he has real val­ues,” says Ian Brem­mer, founder of the Eura­sia Group, who says Cohen would reach out to ask if he was “screw­ing up” and would “ag­o­nize” when he felt he got some­thing wrong. “Five years ago, Jared was much more like, ‘What do I do? Who do I meet?’ But he’s re­ally grown com­fort­able in his own skin,” Brem­mer says.

Many at­tribute Cohen’s grow­ing con­fi­dence to Sch­midt’s tute­lage, es­pe­cially as the two

em­barked on writ­ing a book to­gether. For re­search, they trav­eled to more than 35 coun­tries and de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship. They’d sit op­po­site each other on lap­tops punch­ing out bul­let points on Google Docs, de­tail­ing their trips to Libya and North Korea. Cohen re­mem­bers a time in Pak­istan when Sch­midt sat down with the Pak­istani army’s chain-smok­ing chief of staff, and the two sized each other up in si­lence through plumes of smoke be­fore Sch­midt deftly ma­neu­vered the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward. “Eric has this diplo­matic craft where he will say things like, ‘I apol­o­gize for ask­ing this ques­tion—please help me un­der­stand,’ ” an in­for­mal def­er­ence that dis­arms peo­ple who might ex­pect con­de­scen­sion, Cohen says. “If I ever go back into gov­ern­ment, that’s the kind of diplo­mat I want to be.” When I ask what the two did for fun, Cohen re­sponds, “Oh, well, when Eric trav­els, he likes to go see data cen­ters.”

Cohen and Sch­midt’s book,

The New Dig­i­tal Age, ap­peared in 2013, with glow­ing blurbs from Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Al­bright. It pre­dicts how tech­nol­ogy will make the fu­ture more utopian in some ways and more dystopian in oth­ers. It could eas­ily dou­ble as an in­ter­nal memo that de­tails how many of the search gi­ant’s per­va­sive prod­ucts—in­clud­ing Youtube and Gmail—have inevitably be­come en­twined in geopo­lit­i­cal is­sues, good and bad. “What Lock­heed Martin was to the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, tech­nol­ogy and cy­ber-se­cu­rity com­pa­nies will be to the twenty-first,” the two wrote. But Lock­heed Martin cre­ates prod­ucts, and to have a true im­pact Ideas would need to move in that di­rec­tion—to­ward what would soon be­come Jig­saw. “That’s when it be­came more than just a mar­ket­ing cam­paign,” Sch­midt says.

Cohen and Sch­midt had wit­nessed the power of in­ter­net ac­tivism dur­ing the Arab Spring, when Wael Ghonim, then Google’s head of mar­ket­ing for the Mid­dle East and North Africa, used Face­book to help or­ga­nize rallies against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and be­came an in­flu­en­tial sym­bol in the protests. “[Google co­founder] Sergey [Brin] was re­ally in­ter­ested in why it was be­ing re­ferred to as the ‘Face­book Rev­o­lu­tion,’ ” re­calls Scott Car­pen­ter, Jig­saw’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor. If they had cre­ated the right prod­ucts, could it have been the “Google Rev­o­lu­tion” in­stead?

When Cohen and Sch­midt wrote in their book that the tech world ought to be ready for the next 5 bil­lion peo­ple com­ing on­line in devel­op­ing or op­pressed coun­tries, they clearly meant the next 5 bil­lion con­sumers. What hap­pens if Al­pha­bet (or other Amer­i­can tech com­pa­nies) don’t pre­pare? Just look at the strides Shen­zhen-based tech gi­ant Huawei has made in the Mid­dle East and Africa, spread­ing what Cohen and Sch­midt call China’s sphere of on­line in­flu­ence. “For the coun­tries not con­nected yet, they’re either go­ing to get built out with Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy,” ex­plains Cohen, “or they’re go­ing to get built out with more demo­cratic tech­nol­ogy.” That is, tech from Google—or one of its West­ern com­peti­tors.

Case in point: Cuba. In June 2014, Cohen and Sch­midt trav­eled to meet with Cuba’s for­eign min­is­ter, Bruno Ro­dríguez. With co­or­di­na­tion and en­cour­age­ment from White House of­fi­cials, they ar­rived in Ha­vana to pro­mote in­ter­net free­dom, but Cohen says he also brought a list of Google prod­ucts that weren’t avail­able be­cause of sanc­tions. “Within four months, we got Earth, Pi­casa, Chrome, and Google An­a­lyt­ics avail­able in Cuba,” says Cohen, who in­sists he wasn’t aware of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s am­bi­tions to end the em­bargo, but the tim­ing of their visit left Google in a good place to reap the ben­e­fits. “When the an­nounce­ment came, we had many more open doors of peo­ple in Cuba who were in­ter­ested in talk­ing to us, be­cause they re­mem­bered that we showed up when it was un­pop­u­lar.”

Some see Jig­saw’s ef­forts to ef­fect geopo­lit­i­cal change as a lib­er­tar­ian fan­tasy, a pri­va­tized ver­sion of the State De­part­ment with un­prece­dented power. Wik­ileaks founder Ju­lian As­sange went so far as to sug­gest that Cohen is Google’s “di­rec­tor of regime change” who builds power in “end­less soirees for the cross­fer­til­iza­tion of in­flu­ence be­tween elites and their vas­sals, un­der the pi­ous rubric of ‘civil so­ci­ety.’ ” Google has a long his­tory of gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment—the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion helped fund Brin and co­founder Larry Page’s ear­li­est re­search on or­ga­niz­ing the world’s in­for­ma­tion while they were still stu­dents at Stan­ford—and the com­pany has re­port­edly served as a con­trac­tor for gov­ern­ment agen­cies since blos­som­ing into a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion.

But there’s been an evo­lu­tion in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Sil­i­con Val­ley and Wash­ing­ton. “There was this rocky pe­riod where the gov­ern­ment was wak­ing up to the Val­ley’s im­por­tance but still had this at­ti­tude of boss­ing it around, like, ‘You have to do this! And take down this ter­ror­ist con­tent! And XYZ!’ ” says the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Zvika Krieger, who es­tab­lished the State De­part­ment’s first of­fice in Sil­i­con Val­ley. “Then it be­came, ‘No, [tech com­pa­nies] don’t. We don’t work for you.’ And so it quickly evolved from a head-butting, ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship to a recog­ni­tion that gov­ern­ment doesn’t have a monopoly on im­pact.”

Ed­ward Snow­den also sig­naled a ma­jor turn­ing point in this power dy­namic. Snow­den’s leaks of sweep­ing U.S. spy ac­tiv­i­ties re­vealed the ex­tent to which firms such as Google had been vul­ner­a­ble to NSA hack­ing. These rev­e­la­tions, Car­pen­ter says, built “mis­trust” be­tween the tech com­mu­nity and Wash­ing­ton, adding that Al­pha­bet doesn’t want to be seen as an AT&T or MCI, the tele­com giants that had a long­time re­la­tion­ship with the NSA and proved key to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s war­rant­less wire­tap­ping ini­tia­tives. “Af­ter Snow­den,” Car­pen­ter says, “[Al­pha­bet] does not think of it­self all the time as an Amer­i­can com­pany, but a global com­pany.”

The com­pany’s re­la­tion­ship with the White House has only wors­ened un­der Pres­i­dent Trump—jig­saw doesn’t have many con­nec­tions within Rex Tiller­son’s stripped-down State De­part­ment, which has cur­tailed its Sil­i­con Val­ley op­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to two knowl­edge­able sources. Although Cohen says Jig­saw is still will­ing to work with the White House on ar­eas where their val­ues align, he stresses that Jig­saw “isn’t do­ing the bid­ding of gov­ern­ments. We’re not do­ing these things be­cause some­body in a dark suit and dark sun­glasses told us to.”

Estab­lish­ing a clear Al­pha­bet doc­trine—the goals, the lim­its, the moral ground­work for the global com­pany—is now at the heart of Cohen’s post. Cohen’s sup­port­ers ar­gue that, with his unique pedi­gree, he’s the best per­son to lead the charge, es­pe­cially if other tech com­pa­nies fol­low suit. “[Sil­i­con Val­ley] has im­mense power, in many ways unchecked,” says Ad­mi­ral James Stavridis, the for­mer NATO supreme al­lied com­man­der and cur­rent dean of Tufts’s grad­u­ate school of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, who is a men­tor to Cohen. “But that’s why you need re­spon­si­ble peo­ple like Jared, who un­der­stand how to stand on the right side of the line and not take a pri­vate ef­fort too far.”

Sch­midt says that “there are lim­its to what we can do—we’re not a coun­try, though we cer­tainly have in­flu­ence. We’re try­ing to pro­mote what we con­sider to be the val­ues of the in­ter­net.” Of course, Sch­midt is down­play­ing the ul­ti­mate ef­fect of these kinds of ef­forts. In a 2014 pub­lic dis­cus­sion

Pres­i­dent Obama is said to have fumed, “Who is Jared Cohen, and why haven’t we fired him yet?”

with Cohen at Stan­ford, Sch­midt talked about the im­por­tance of bring­ing the in­ter­net to re­pressed places like Py­ongyang, which he thought would lead the pop­u­lace to ques­tion the au­toc­racy. “All we have to do is get a lit­tle doubt in, and that coun­try will fall over,” he said of North Korea.

Days af­ter vis­it­ing Cohen in his of­fice, I

squeeze into a prod­uct meet­ing down the hall, in a tiny nook with two rows of shelf seat­ing. A team leader clicks through slides on the screen at the front of the room de­tail­ing a Jig­saw group’s re­cent Nairobi trip, which co­in­cided with the Kenyan pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and in­volved ex­cur­sions into Kib­era, one of Africa’s largest slums, to in­ves­ti­gate how res­i­dents were uti­liz­ing tech­nol­ogy and deal­ing with on­line cen­sor­ship and fake news. The group ref­er­ences how they bumped into a Face­book team in Nairobi—a sign that Jig­saw isn’t alone in its in­ter­est in these spa­ces— and at­ten­dees hurl out ques­tions through­out the dis­cus­sion, ask­ing about the im­pact of prod­ucts like Youtube, Google Maps, What­sapp, and Twit­ter, and pos­ing ques­tions such as “What’s the UX of go­ing to vote in Kenya?”

Jig­saw’s em­ploy­ees are a mix of en­gi­neers and re­searchers, who have built out a port­fo­lio of more than a dozen prod­ucts. Since Al­pha­bet spun out Ideas and re­branded it Jig­saw, in Fe­bru­ary 2016, Cohen has nar­rowed the com­pany’s fo­cus to geopo­lit­i­cal is­sues that present both a com­plex en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge as well as a di­rect se­cu­rity threat. Mon­tage, for ex­am­ple, is a tool that crowd­sources anal­y­sis of Youtube footage from con­flict zones to iden­tify ev­i­dence of war crimes. An­other, Per­spec­tive, which launched ear­lier this year, em­ploys ma­chine learn­ing to fil­ter out toxic lan­guage on­line and is now uti­lized by The New York Times.

The com­pany is un­der no pres­sure to charge for these prod­ucts yet—the team says they’d like to get to breakeven—but they’re al­ready de­liv­er­ing value for other Google prop­er­ties, whether by clean­ing up con­tent on Youtube or mak­ing pop­u­lar An­droid apps (like that of The New York Times) more us­able. An­other prod­uct that Jig­saw de­vel­oped, to help ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists in au­to­cratic coun­tries thwart phish­ing at­tacks, led to im­proved se­cu­rity mea­sures on Gmail and Chrome. “I can’t think of a sin­gle thing we’re work­ing on where there is not some part of Google that we’re either learn­ing from or shar­ing our knowl­edge with,” Cohen says.

And therein lies Jig­saw’s true ROI. If vir­u­lent tox­i­c­ity and cy­ber­se­cu­rity prob­lems con­tinue to in­fect tech’s big­gest plat­forms, they could rep­re­sent an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Sil­i­con Val­ley’s bot­tom line. “A lot of these is­sues are driv­ing at [tech’s] core busi­ness in­ter­ests,” says the WEF’S Krieger. “If Face­book and Google be­come havens for ex­trem­ist speech, bul­ly­ing, ter­ror­ist con­tent, fake news, videos of be­head­ings—then they be­come plat­forms no­body wants to spend time on.”

In many ways, this new re­al­ity has al­ready

ar­rived. The Jig­saw team didn’t have to travel to Kenya to find chaos. Around the time I joined their meet­ing, Trump threat­ened nu­clear war with Kim Jong-un via Twit­ter, and Amer­ica was still reel­ing from the deadly clashes in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, fu­eled by white su­prem­a­cists who used Face­book and Youtube to fo­ment anger. And a Google em­ployee named James Damore tested the com­pany’s ap­petite for free ex­pres­sion, writ­ing a memo that par­roted gen­der stereo­types, which went vi­ral and got him fired. Soon, right-wing or­ga­ni­za­tions were pro­mot­ing protests against the so-called Goolag.

Cohen is care­ful not to talk about Trump or ex­plain how the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion has changed Jig­saw’s ap­proach. Yas­min Green, who was born in Iran and is one of many liv­ing in the U.S. who stand to be af­fected by pro­posed travel bans, ex­plains that it doesn’t do Jig­saw any fa­vors to talk about pol­i­tics. Strate­gi­cally, it makes more sense for the com­pany to fo­cus on the prob­lem be­hind the prob­lem—that is, state­spon­sored net­worked pro­pa­ganda—rather than, say, Trump. “If you be­come con­sumed with the pol­i­tics or the ac­tor, you’re re­ally miss­ing the op­por­tu­nity,” she says.

But sources close to Cohen say Trump has ob­vi­ously changed the Jig­saw cal­cu­lus. Even Sch­midt ac­knowl­edges that the two made a sig­nif­i­cant er­ror in not grasp­ing sooner “the ex­tent to which gov­ern­ments—es­sen­tially what the Rus­sians did—would use hack­ing to con­trol the in­for­ma­tion space,” adding that Jig­saw is now “look­ing at the tech­nol­ogy be­hind in­for­ma­tion war­fare. I worry that the Rus­sians in 2020 will have a lot more pow­er­ful tools.”

Jig­saw’s cur­rent po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion is some­what pre­car­i­ous since the Bre­it­bart crowd may re­gard Jig­saw’s core mis­sion as a di­rect af­front to Trump, whose as­cent ben­e­fited from the kind of mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­tor­tion cam­paigns Jig­saw stands to chal­lenge. Eura­sia Group’s Brem­mer says that Trump’s elec­tion “makes Al­pha­bet more vul­ner­a­ble” to crit­i­cism and scru­tiny from the White House.

As if the po­lit­i­cal land­scape weren’t tricky enough, Jig­saw also faces chal­lenges nav­i­gat­ing the mine­field of Al­pha­bet’s own share­holder in­ter­ests. This past sum­mer, New Amer­ica CEO Slaugh­ter fired a scholar at the think tank not long af­ter he praised the EU for lev­el­ing a $2.7 bil­lion an­titrust fine against Google. Sch­midt, who has pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing to New Amer­ica and served as its chair un­til 2016, had ex­pressed dis­plea­sure about the scholar to Slaugh­ter, the type of cor­po­rate strong-arm­ing that ap­pears to con­flict with Jig­saw’s ideals about the free flow of in­for­ma­tion and its moon­shot goal of end­ing on­line cen­sor­ship. Sch­midt and Cohen avoid di­rectly re­spond­ing to the con­tro­versy. When I ask about the con­no­ta­tions of a pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tion in­flu­enc­ing these types of is­sues, Sch­midt in­ter­rupts, “I don’t agree with you, with your choice of words. I want to be clear: We’re not try­ing to in­flu­ence out­comes with Jig­saw.”

The com­mon con­cern about Al­pha­bet is

that it has grown too pow­er­ful, and that Jig­saw, by ex­ten­sion, rep­re­sents a po­ten­tial new dig­i­tal form of im­pe­ri­al­ism. Yet through­out my re­port­ing, the chief crit­i­cism I heard is that Jig­saw’s ac­com­plish­ments are thin and that the jury is still out on the ef­fi­cacy of its prod­ucts. It’s hard to rec­on­cile that Jig­saw is sup­pos­edly tack­ling the world’s nas­ti­est prob­lems yet has just around 60 em­ploy­ees. If Al­pha­bet truly be­lieves in Cohen’s mis­sion, shouldn’t it be in­vest­ing more re­sources into Jig­saw than it has in its ef­forts in vir­tual re­al­ity or TV stream­ing? Un­less it does, Jig­saw could prove noth­ing more than a form of dig­i­tal tourism, with Cohen as the chief tour guide.

Cohen is used to this crit­i­cism. He’s faced cyn­i­cism through­out his ca­reer that his work meld­ing diplo­macy and tech­nol­ogy is su­per­fi­cial. “Jared has al­ways had a knack for be­ing in the right place at the time, rid­ing one zeit­geist to the next,” says one of his harsher crit­ics. But the prob­lems Jig­saw is go­ing af­ter are real, and so too are the con­se­quences if it doesn’t. “[In the com­ing years,] there will be a lot more pres­sure—a moral sense of obli­ga­tion—on Sil­i­con Val­ley to [solve] these

Jig­saw, Cohen says, “isn’t do­ing the bid­ding of gov­ern­ments. We’re not do­ing these things be­cause some­body in a dark suit and dark sun­glasses told us to.”

Ju­lian As­sange sug­gested Cohen is Google’s “di­rec­tor of regime change” en­gaged in “the cross-fer­til­iza­tion of in­flu­ence be­tween elites and their vas­sals.”

prob­lems,” Sec­re­tary Rice says. “I hope they’re will­ing to fix them, be­cause the worst thing that can hap­pen is that the gov­ern­ment just starts reg­u­lat­ing things it doesn’t un­der­stand.”

It’s true Cohen some­times seems as if he’s a char­ac­ter in a Salman Rushdie novel, ap­pear­ing at piv­otal points in a coun­try’s his­tory—in Tu­nisia right af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion, in Libya af­ter Muam­mar el-qaddafi’s death, in Tan­za­nia right be­fore the em­bassies were bombed. But his face lights up with a gen­uine ela­tion when he talks about the peo­ple he’s met in his trav­els—about what he’s learned and the pos­i­tive in­flu­ence he hopes to have on them, from the women he’s in­ter­viewed who have es­caped the clutches of the Tal­iban to en­dan­gered ac­tivists in Syria who have be­come his close friends. “In the rawest sense, I feel like I was put on earth to do these things,” he says. “It’s how I un­der­stand the world’s prob­lems.”

On a re­cent trip to Pa­pua New Guinea, Cohen vis­ited with the peo­ple of Chimbu, a re­mote and moun­tain­ous prov­ince where the indige­nous tribes­men coat them­selves from head to toe in skele­ton war paint. The macabre makeup was orig­i­nally meant to scare off ri­val tribes—now it’s more for show—and Cohen couldn’t re­sist ask­ing to join in their ri­tual skele­ton dance. Strip­ping down to a grass belt, the na­tives used their fin­gers to smear char­coal on his body and face, shroud­ing his eyes in orbs of black, and rubbed white dye made from clay on him in the shape of bones and teeth. Cohen, of course, looked ridicu­lous, but it didn’t mat­ter. It helped him see through their eyes and get into their skin. Cohen’s guide told him he was likely the first Amer­i­can to par­tic­i­pate in their tra­di­tion, which the lo­cals ap­par­ently ap­pre­ci­ated. Even af­ter the cer­e­mony was over, Cohen kept the mask on. As he drove back to the near­est town, lo­cal boys and girls would run along­side his car, point­ing and laugh­ing hysterically at the scary­look­ing for­eigner. Cohen just smiled back and kept on mov­ing.

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