Friday, November 14, 2014

The Great Internet Political Challenge


NOVEMBER 14, 2014

Flip through any newspaper and go from the foreign news to the business pages and what you will see is the “other” great geopolitical struggle in the world today. It is not the traditional one between nation states on land. It is the struggle between “makers” and “breakers” on the Internet.

This is a great time to be a maker, an innovator, a starter-upper. Thanks to the Internet, you can raise capital, sell goods or services, and discover collaborators and customers globally more easily than ever.

This is a great time to make things. But it is also a great time to break things, thanks to the Internet. If you want to break something or someone, or break into somewhere that is encrypted and collaborate with other bad guys, you can recruit and operate today with less money, greater ease and greater reach than ever before.

This is a great time to be a breaker. That is why the balance of power between makers and breakers will shape our world every bit as much as the one between America, Russia and China.

Consider what Mr Robert Hannigan, the director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s version of the United States’ National Security Agency, wrote last week in The Financial Times: The Islamic State was “the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the Internet”. As a result, “they are exploiting the power of the Web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach”. And, the simple fact is, he said, “messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp ... have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists”. The Islamic State has used them to recruit, coordinate and inspire thousands of Islamists from around the world to join its fight to break Iraq and Syria.

Mr Hannigan called for a new deal between intelligence agencies and the social networks so the companies do not encrypt their data services in ways that make breakers such as the Islamic State more powerful and difficult to track.


This will be an important debate, because this same free, open command and control system is enabling the makers to collaborate like never before, too.

Here in Cleveland, I met two Israeli “makers” whose company relies heavily on Ukrainian software engineers.

Their 11-year-old, 550-person company with employees in 20 countries, TOA Technologies, is a provider of cloud-based software that helps firms coordinate and manage mobile employees. It was just sold in a multi-million-dollar deal. Since I do not know a lot of Israelis in Cleveland who employ code writers in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to service Brazil, I interviewed them.

Mr Yuval Brisker, 55, was trained in Israel as an architect and first went to New York in the late 1980s to study at Pratt Institute. He later met Mr Irad Carmi, now 51, an Israeli-trained flautist, who came to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Over the years, both drifted away from their chosen fields and discovered a love for, and taught themselves, programming. An Israeli friend of Mr Brisker’s started a company in the 1990s dot-com boom, MaxBill, and eventually employed them both, but it went bust after 2001.

“We were both dot-com refugees,” said Mr Brisker. “But one day, Irad calls me up and says his father-in-law just came back from the doctor and asked: ‘Why is it that I have to wait for the doctor in his office when he knows he is going to be late and running behind? There must be a technological solution. The doctor knows he will be late and all his patients have cellphones ... Same with the cable guy. This was wasting millions of man hours.’”

In 2003, they started a company to solve that problem. But they had no money and Mr Carmi was working in Vienna. Mr Carmi second-mortgaged his Cleveland home; Mr Brisker took out loans. They communicated globally using email, Yahoo Messenger and an early Yahoo system that worked like a walkie-talkie. They wrote their business plan on free software without ever seeing each other face to face.

Mr Carmi in his travels to Spain discovered Mr Alexey Turchyn, a Ukrainian programmer, who managed the creation of their first constantly updated cloud-based enterprise software.

Eventually, they headquartered in Cleveland. Why not? As they say: On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog — or in Cleveland or Mosul.

It still matters, though, being seen as an “American company”, said Mr Brisker. “People know you represent that kind of entrepreneurialism and freedom of thought and creative expression and bold energy, and they want to be a part of it. They know it can transport them out of the malaise of their local world and enable them to build a new world in its place.”

Malaise? Why do some people respond to malaise with constructive, creative energies and use the Internet to scale them and others with destructive creative energies and use the Internet to scale those? I do not know. But more and more people will be superempowered by the Internet to make things and break things — and social networking companies and intelligence agencies working together or apart will not save us.

When every individual gets this superempowered to make or break things, every family and community matters — the values they impart and the aspirations they inspire.

How we nurture our own in America and in other countries to produce more makers than breakers is now one of the great political — and geopolitical — challenges of this era.


Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist at The New York Times.

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