Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Archive for January 2010

Weekend Wrap-Up: Tech startups in China, “smart dust”, the elephant at Davos, and more…

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1.  Courtesy of TechCrunch, a American tech entrepreneur in China writes blithely about how startups work within the system, most Chinese netizens “don’t care that much about what’s going on outside of China,” and the virtue of political stability.

2.  Here come micro-sensors. Wait a minute, they’re called cell phones.

3.  Things you don’t talk about at Davos (hint:  it involves a search engine and the world’s most populous country).

4.  Will the China-Google situation hurt Microsoft’s share of the browser market?

Written by Mark

January 31, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Perspective, Part II – Rethinking Google and China

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The Net has enough commentary on the situation between Google and China, with the bulk of it focusing on whether this really amounts to Google walking the “don’t be evil” talk.

Over at The Atlantic, though, there’s a remarkable (and widely disseminated) post by Marc Ambinder that includes the following –

In the absence of an international treaty defining what cyber sovereignty consists of, it is hard to figure out the boundaries, much less police them effectively.

The geopolitics of cyber power suggests that centrally directed government espionage is…tolerated by U.S. officials.


There is no fear among U.S. officials that China would ever mount a crippling cyber attack against U.S. infrastructure, even though they have mapped our electrical grid and probably left behind some malware that could be triggerable at a later date. (For what it’s worth, the U.S. has also mapped China’s electrical grid.)

The entire post is remarkable, but these three sentences point to the international norms that have developed organically around the use of cyberspace to project power. Ambinder’s post is yet more confirmation that every day, no matter what governments or companies deny, information networks are subject to “attacks” – read unauthorized penetration and potential tampering – at a volume which is only hinted at, but is presumed to be stunning, and likely originates with governments as well as criminals. This happens largely out of sight, except for those directly involved – and it’s difficult to resist parallels with military activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have come to accept, as a new norm, the unauthorized reconnaissance of networks that (presumably, but not always) exist within national boundaries – much as the international community already accepts, with a few glaring exceptions, that states will attempt to maintain surveillance of other states’ activities, without authorization.

The analogy doesn’t hold, though. Surveillance conducted in the physical world still presumes that sovereignty remains respected – and there are still several steps of tension between surveillance that a state perceives as “crossing the line” and outright conflict. If reconnaissance in an information network is accompanied by tampering – see Ambinder’s reference to malware that “could be triggerable,” above – the distance between reconnaissance and conflict is much, much shorter. If you accept the feasibility of the “Digital Pearl Harbor” threat (and I don’t), wouldn’t the placement of “triggerable malware” be the equivalent of finding, say, explosives rigged for remote detonation outside key infrastructure? Should there be a pattern of norms in cyberspace that is fundamentally different for that governing states’ behavior in the physical world?

Ambinder’s post hints that the pattern is actually closer to a MAD relationship (see the third quote above, emphasis on the for what it’s worth part), as existed between the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals – with the implicit assumption being that this represents a sort of stability. I’m not sure that holds. What made MAD work was transparency – the impossibility of the surprise “first-strike” that negated the “mutual” part of MAD. That transparency is completely lacking when it comes to the use of power in cyberspace. There is near-zero attribution (officially, anyway) of activities, of tracing cyberwar back to identifiable cyberwarriors. There is a level of secrecy afforded to the cyber-environment that I’d wager tempts states to take more risks, producing greater instability over time.

Back to Google and China. Where this represents a landmark – or where it doesn’t – is in the transparency Google brought to the situation that developed. Fundamentally, Google’s decision challenges the international norm that has allowed activities like China’s to continue and proliferate across global networks. The proposition that Google’s decision implies is that if international actors are to interact on the global internet, a set of acceptable behaviors to govern their interactions must be defined through practice. Google’s decision in effect implies that current practice is unacceptable.

And it may be the case that only a non-state actor like Google, one not vested in questions of international power, could do this. Whether this challenge gains momentum – or whether we give up on the idea of a global internet altogether – remains to be seen.

Written by Mark

January 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Perspective, Part I

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Relayed by a friend who’d asked an ex-colleague about what surprised him most about his Afghanistan deployment –

“I shot live rounds every day I was there. Every day.”

Written by Mark

January 19, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Military & Security

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China and Google’s long-term strategy

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There’s already been a torrent of commentary on Google’s policy decision with respect to Google.cn – with some of the clearest found in posts by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, and Jonathan Zittrain, among others. The debate and points of interpretation mostly deal with Google’s potential motives. A purely cynical play or an attempt to live up to corporate values, maybe with some cost/benefit analysis of censorship technologies thrown in?

As a manager responsible for some measure of business strategy, I’m going to wager that Google’s decision is not that different from most business decisions (albeit one informed by better data). Define the problem, assess root causes, outline the risks and rewards of solution alternatives – and when you’re 80% confident in your decision, execute. You have to believe that the internal meetings that preceded this move made reference to Google’s core values at one point, at least. It’s a rare successful company that makes a critical strategy decision without asking is this really who we are? Purely cynical moves of this magnitude require a lot of purely cynical people, having the same discussion in the same conference room – as well as a level of clarity into consequences that is rare for most business decisions.

At the same time, it’s hard to see this as a deliberately planned triumph of values, as others have implied. Google had an immediate business problem:   a security incident and theft of IP that challenged the “feasibility of its business operations [in China].” Consider this from the point of view of those operations (and for data here I’m going to rely in part on a new report by the search marketing firm Reform Digital) –

1.  Google has a much smaller (~20-25%) market share in China than market leader Baidu (~64-76%) . While the near-term trend is unclear, the numbers haven’t moved much since 2007 – except for Baidu (for an alternative view on the last six months, look here).

2.  The market may be splitting between a more educated and affluent segment (Google.cn) and the rest, including continued high volumes of new users (Baidu)…with what are probably better margins to Google.

3.  Google’s ability to grow beyond search (remember, the business objective is about “improving access to information,” not just search) could be limited. Baidu runs the third-largest social networking site (after two other Chinese sites), and I’d guess there’s some questions around Google’s potential in the mobile (where Symbian is apparently dominant) market and browser market (where Google may or may not have a share in the second-most popular browser behind IE). This matters, of course, when you’re envisioning displacing the Microsoft model with Chrome’s browser-based OS and web-based applications.

This last point, I think, is where the question of corporate values comes in. You have a smaller but profitable market in which you’ve developed a compromise between the regulators’ objectives (censorship) and your business objective (improving access to information to deliver value to customers). You have an incident (security breach, IP theft) that threatens your ability to provide continued value to your core customers. You look at your longer-term strategy and question whether the compromise you adopted can really work with your plans for growth into adjacent markets – not just customer markets, but markets in different technologies. And here’s the critical point:  you can’t disaggregate the question of values from strategy, because if Google decides to, well, acquiesce at this point, it fundamentally changes what Google.cn becomes over the next few years. Changing strategy in any significant way – whether internally or due to external pressure – changes how customers perceive your brand, with implications for both revenue as well as who you become as a company.  If you’ve lived through this in a business, it’s easier to understand than articulate.

Thinking more broadly, another reason to consider this in light of Google’s long-term strategy is because Google’s long-term strategy does lay out a future for end-user computing writ large, starting with the Chrome OS as an alternative to the Microsoft and Apple models. Consider a 2015 scenario in which Google has departed China, but Chrome, Android, and Google Apps have reshaped personal and even corporate computing models for the average North American user – a scenario that might be realizable (see for instance, comment from GM’s CIO on the enterprise readiness of Google Apps). Does personal computing in China evolve along a parallel track led by different companies, or start to move in a different direction, with consequences not seen for another five or ten years? A bit of a stretch, perhaps, considering that data is data…but I think the historical evidence does suggest that national approaches to computing can diverge significantly, with the most important consequences not understood until much later.

Written by Mark

January 17, 2010 at 11:45 pm