The rise of the interest-state

In the post below, on Google standing up to China over its spying on dissidents and censorship, I note how Zeit Online calls Google a quasi-state — in a post under the headline “The Google Republic” — and Fallows says Google “broke diplomatic relations with China” as if Google were a nation.

What this says, of course, is that the internet is the New World and Google is its biggest colonizer: the sun never sets on Google.

It also says that on the internet, new states form across interests, ignoring borders. Those interests can be business — and we’ve seen what look like business-states before — but also causes, principles, and dangers (e.g., Al Qaeda). Interest-states will gain more power and that power will come from nations.

Just as what we’re seeing in the economy is more than a mere crisis — it is the shift from the industrial economy to what follows — similarly, in political structure, we are beginning to witness the emergence of new and competitive interest-states. In What Would Google Do?, I said this:

Whatever causes they take up, Generation G will be able to organize without organizations, as Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody. That ability to coalesce will have a profound destabilizing impact on institutions. We can organize bypassing governments, borders, political parties, companies, academic institutions, religious groups, and ethnic groups, inevitably reducing their power and hold on our lives. In an essay in Foreign Affairs in 2008, Richard Haass argued that the world structure is moving from bi- and unipolarity (i.e., the Cold War and its aftermath) to nonpolarity (i.e., no one’s in charge). We now operate in an open marketplace of influence. Google makes it possible to broadcast our interests and find, organize, and act in concert with others. One need no longer control institutions to control agendas. Haass chronicles the dilution of governments. Bloggers Umair Haque and Fred Wilson have written about the fall of the firm, and earlier I examined the idea that networks are becoming more efficient than corporations. In my blog, I follow the crumbling of the fourth estate, the press. One could debate the stature and power of the first estate, the church. What’s left? The internet is fueling the rise of the third estate—the rise of the people. That might bode anarchy except that the internet also brings the power to organize.

Our organization is ad hoc. We can find and take action with people of like interest, need, opinion, taste, background, and worldview anywhere in the world. I hope this could lead to a new growth in individual leadership: Online, you can accomplish what you want alone and you can gather a group to collaborate. Being out of power need not be an excuse or a bar from seeking power. That may encourage more involvement in communities and nations—witness the youth armies that gathered in Facebook around Barack Obama, a powerful lesson for a generation to have learned.

: MORE: Siva Vaidhyanathan responds (as part of a conversation between us in both this post and the one below):

My book plays this in a slightly different way: The Internet has enough diverse interests and players that it demands governance. No traditional state is in the position or willing to assume that role. So Google governs the Internet.

One could read this showdown (as I do) as a classic international power conflict between a major traditional state and a new, virtual state: the Googlenet.

Google is taking a risky stand to defend the Internet generally. This is what a weaker, threatened state would do.

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  • My book plays this in a slightly different way: The Internet has enough diverse interests and players that it demands governance. No traditional state is in the position or willing to assume that role. So Google governs the Internet.

    One could read this showdown (as I do) as a classic international power conflict between a major traditional state and a new, virtual state: the Googlenet.

    Google is taking a risky stand to defend the Internet generally. This is what a weaker, threatened state would do.

    See my general thoughts on Google and China:

    • Mark Bedford

      @siva – u assume that google aspires to and, signifies as, an existing political status quo – more probably it is a different dynamic whose nature is only just emerging. leave us not be hasty when it comes to google – I mean who wudda thunk, yeah?

      • Jim S

        I would say, rather, that Google knows what kind of political environment allows it to maximize its “mission”. That mission simply being to optimize the freedom of the users of the internet to access Google and to rely on it. It is in the interests of Google to be trusted as a source of links to accurate information on one hand and the broadest range of information and opinion on the other hand. If Google has these things then others will to, leading to competition to keep Google on its toes and that is good for pretty much everyone who uses the internet.

  • Sophie Hammer

    It’s reassuring that the major power players of this New World (like Google) can u-turn, do the right thing and generally not just disappoint us like the old school political powers did (and continue to do). There’s a lot to be optimistic about!

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  • Jardinero1

    Semantics are important here and a big problem with these concerns and arguments about Google are the result of using terms like state and nation loosely and then contorting them into utterly new non-sensical uses.

    For Google to be a state requires a wholly new definition of the state. This new definition don’t comport with the reality of what a state does in the real world. A state, strictly speaking, is a sovereign political entity. It can only function if it has a territorial monopoly on taxation, violence and any and all appeals for justice. Google can’t be a state or even a virtual state since it can do none of the above. Functionally, Google is no different than any other private actor.

    After butchering the concept of state Jarvis goes on to say that, “interest-states will gain more power and that power will come from nations” Please define nation again. Nations are groups of people who share a common religious, ethnic, racial, language, or experience. A state can exist without a nation and a nation can also exist without a state. One is not required for the other. How is a nation going to help the fantastical “interest-state”? Google, Google-philes and Google-advocates actually bear more the hallmarks of a nation than a state.

    The internet, on the other hand, at it’s most basic functional level is hardware within various states. Trunks and routers run through states. States can and do control what is on their part of the internet, when they so choose. The internet is already governed by the states of the world.

    Understanding Google and the internet that way, why would anyone want to restrict the actions of a private actor or even a nation against the depradations of the state?

    • Eric Gauvin


      Yes… But how do we know you’re not just making all this up like Jarvis…

    • Kevin Shaum

      “A state, strictly speaking, is a sovereign political entity. It can only function if it has a territorial monopoly on taxation, violence and any and all appeals for justice.”

      It works, if you interpret information and social networks as a form of territory. they can tax it (charge to add to the information store, charge to access it), and do “violence” to it (censor it, delete it, or remove the original owner’s access to it by suspending their account). Nominally they are answerable to appeals to regular governments, but exercising jurisdictional control over all the different parts of a multinational entity can be challenging.

      Personally, I see “Google as a state” as just a metaphor, but a useful and informative one.

  • Judge Crater

    I’m applauding Google in this, but ultimately states have power that Google does not have. China can, if it chooses, block all Google IPs. That may not be in its interest, but a state can choose to go the way of Burma or North Korea if it wishes as long as it has command of its armed forces. If it has (as an earlier post put it) a monopoly on violence, it is a state in a way that a company or NGO is not.

    Now if Google starts hiring a mercenary army, I may reconsider my position….

    • I totally agree. The idea that Google is a quasi-state is a bit ridiculous. Maybe 20 years from now, but not anytime soon.

  • It’s good that the massive multiplayer ad agency Google is standing up to the state China.

    If we’re going to have Google be a “state” now, I want it to have elected officials, separation of powers, liberal democracy with a free election system, three branches of government, and a legislature convened not by IETF engineers “humming” for what they think the right protocols should be on the Internet, but open and accountable to the real public.

    We’d also need an independent judiciary that will prosecute cases like Google arbitrarily pulling people’s Google Adsense accounts for “any reason or no reason,” sometimes even on the strength of a rival or griefer filing a fake abuse report.

    It’s instructive to see Jeff Jarvis twist and turn with every wind of Google doctrine like a Soviet perestroika liberal.

  • Mark Lambert

    Prokofy Neva… THANK YOU for this simple and brilliant summary.

    Jeff, I too am concerned with the intellectual turn you have taken. Here is an example… On the latest TWiG you opined that “the internet hates the middle man and disintermediates them” This is patently true and very well stated. What I find troubling is that you don’t seem to recognize that Google is *the ultimate* middle-man. They simply match advertisers with ad carriers, searches with results. Yet you instead say that “Google *is* the internet”

    It begs explanation why, if you believe this (and it is in many ways true), you aren’t troubled by it.

    Google is a private, for profit, American corporation. Are we now all to cheerlead swapping one master (traditional nation-states) for another (the corporate-state)?

    Why is this a good trade?

    The democratizing power of the internet was mankinds most powerful tool and our best shot at societal evolution long-term. Shockingly, it is the product of (albeit shakey) cooperation across nation-states.

    Google, in many ways, has coopted it for commercial gain and turned it into a purely commercial enterprise. That this yields some “free” widgets, and an occasional bone (like this story) thrown out in the interest of corporate interest and share price, does little to ease my concerns.

    • cm

      I’ve stopped listening to TwiG, but I suspect that Jeff really means that the internet hates the middleman that does not provide value.

      In the traditional sense, the middleman is the conduit of services and products that managed to provide value by providing access. For example a hardware retailer will sell bolts because it is impractical to order them from the manufacturer. The ease of web purchasing and finding suppliers is getting easier all the time squeezing the middleman.

      Same with news etc. Those that owned the delivery channel (TV, print,…) were the news middlemen. That’s getting harder to justify these days.

      Google is not really a middleman. They don’t really stand between the end user and the supplier, instead they provide a mechanism whereby the buyer can find the seller (via ads or search).

      While Google does indeed make money from the internet, there is very little lock in. You can use their services without paying a cent and they provide a particularly important utility – search – that is completely free to use.

      In many ways, Google *is* the web (not the internet which is much more than the web). Search provides the ability to make the connections that are so important to make the web work.

      • Mark Lambert

        I agree with you completely. The internet itself has become the ultimate intermediary. It is a near certainty, that the economic center of gravity will shift to the internet completely over time and that most businesses will become entrepreneurial rather than institutional. So I think the traditional “middle man” concept is a dead one. Technology and automation can connect A to B or, more specifically, provide the vehicle by which they connect directly.

        But in this new era, Google has positioned themselves as *the* new intermediary. They sit in the center of the flow of commerce and collect a tax.

        I agree there is no “lock in”. That’s the problem really. They have established such strong plausible deniability, that they can’t be reasonably challenged from a legal standpoint. Personally, I don’t think that is ok. Free widgets and a search engine isn’t enough, in my opinion.

        Imagine 20 years on. A document/page view of information bound to a simplistic browser will be gone. Generic context search with some relevancy will be gone. The order of the day will be the personalized delivery of information to you. Flowing out from you will be a highly customized, and accurate, flow of identifiers. These will flow to Google and will have high value. Your habits and intent will be known and Google will facilitate the sale of this information. Advertisers and those who provide delivery will buy and sell “you” through Google.

        So I say, if we are saying that this is the future, and that it is all fantastic, and that we shouldn’t fear it and that there is a lot to gain and that the internet is this fantastic democratizing engine and disintermediates “waste” (all true) well then why do we need Google? Why cant all of this information surface in some standardized, standards based, format and be utilized by both advertisers and ad carriers directly? So the internet disintermediates everyone except Google because Google has captured a position to be difficult to disintermediate. This might be ok if it were the United Nations, but its a for profit corporation.

        Your last comment sums it up. Google *is* the web, but they will *be* the internet as the web becomes more and more of an anachronistic term and the services delivered on the internet become more and more commercial. I feel this is alarming.

  • cm

    Nothing new under the sun.

    There have always been big corporates that end up getting power, whether it is over a state or a country. GM, IBM, various oils etc. wield power by offering or threatening to withdraw, jobs and investment or services etc.

    Just look at the last IOC meeting to choose the next Olympic host country. Presidents flying halfway aroiund the world to pitch their case.

    • Andy Freeman

      > wield power by offering or threatening to withdraw, jobs and investment or services etc.

      Note that govts do exactly the same thing.

      In addition, govts will throw you in jail and/or change your taxes.

      You can always refuse to deal with a company. You can’t refuse to deal with a govt.

  • Google is not just another corporation, nor is it a political state. It is an economic power, and it is something like a switchboard for the Net – i.e., when it arrived, it transformed a rather muddy, ill-conceived navigational reality (where we all had to remember to type in full urls) into something smart, seemingly intuitive, scarily accurate. It changed how we relate to the internet functionally, structurally, etc. I.e., it’s not just a middleman, it’s the logic of all middlemen — something not unlike the logos of the Net as we now know it.

    • Eric Gauvin

      One of the common threads throughout a lot of Jarvis’ google-love is that google’s unique value proposition. Is it really so different from its competitors in terms of search? I’ve always instinctually felt that a significant factor in google’s widespread adoption as the preferred search engine has to do with it’s style, which was quite different at the time it made its debut. I think that’s the only reason they give away all the freebies. It’s so their users will become completely entangled and stay loyal. Many many people love google right now, and we even have a guy (Jarvis) who makes a career out of explaining how great google is. But then what…

  • I don’t think the state analogy works with Google and other internet entities. How is it a state if anyone can join and leave as they please, it holds no power above what you give them yourself, it requires no moral or financial obligations, it takes no time, money nor effort to leave, and you can be a citizen of any number of such states at once?

    It’s such a bad analogy that I’m starting to suspect you of fear mongering for journalistic purposes :P

    • Mark Lambert

      Fear mongering? Jeff is *cheer leading*. Thats the problem here.

      It is an illusion that anyone can “join” and “leave” as they please. Do you have control of the banking system today? Hey… You can “leave” your bank right?

      How do Bing and Yahoo do against Google? Wouldnt we all agree they’re a joke? Do people believe that this is because Google is so amazing? It’s critical mass. Google has the most eyes so it gets the most advertisers which means it gets the most ad revenue which means it gets the most sites which means it has the most eyes. This is a nearly impossible cycle to break.

      If I were putting up a website today and wanted to make money from it, I’d be insane to not use Google. And we are at the *infancy* stage of this trend.

      Over time, search will become more and more customized and the information which flows *out* from us will become more and more specific. Location, intent and habits will weave together. There is some vague promise that this is “abstracted” and that we are not *individually* targeted, but this is certainly in no way guaranteed. And that no one seems to want to watch Google or question them, ensures we will get there. Everyone happily says “no lock in here!” and then logs right in and then provides all of their info whether they know it or not. What is *happening* with that info, is increasingly unknown. And everyone feels “ok” because, hey, “they can leave”. Leave and go where? It is easy for Google to have a “Data Liberation Front” because they *know* that the data only flows *to* them. If it flows *from* them to anywhere else, they can just buy and collapse wherever it is going.

      It would be as if the whole world only at ice cream, was obsessed with ice cream and I were taking victory laps because I’ll happily show you how to make cotton candy for free and even give you a helping hand in getting going on that.

      Does Google help you get your Google Apps transitioned over to Sharepoint? Hmmmm… Why do I think they do not? No “Data Liberation” there. Google is highly selective in what they make “open” and which “freedom movement” they support on any given day.

      Larry and Sergei started out by saying “we would NEVER support ads! We’re not evil!” Today they say “well we’re not evil! dont mind the ads!” Over time it will evolve to “F you… what can you do about it anyway?” And much like with every other abusive monopoly, people will look back and say “how the HELL did THAT happen?” Only this time the stakes are the economic foundation of the internet.

    • Andy Freeman

      > How do Bing and Yahoo do against Google?

      It depends.

      > Wouldnt we all agree they’re a joke?

      Not at all. Yahoo search results were on-par with/better than Google’s when I last had access to statistically valid comparisons.

      The fact that advertisers aren’t willing to pay Yahoo and Bing as much as they’ll pay Google doesn’t imply that YahBing have less value to users.

      > If I were putting up a website today and wanted to make money from it, I’d be insane to not use Google.

      Not so fast. There are other ad networks and someone clearly thinks that they can make more value using them than using Google.

      Of course, maybe those folks are wrong, but before we take you at your word, how about telling us about your relevant expertise/knowledge. For example, have you run a profitable website? On what scale? If you’ve studied the field, great – where can we see the results of that research?

      • Mark Lambert

        Google has 30% of online ad revenue locked up and nearly 3% of *total* ad revenue. Their closest competitor is Yahoo who has 12% of online share and continues to shrink. They have something like 70% (I believe) or search. This is trending continually upward.

        My point is that it is readily accepted by nearly every analyst that Google has enough critical mass, that no competitor is catching them.

        Could it happen? Possibly. It would probably take a paradigm shift though. And them missing the boat on it. For example someone else beating them to the bunch on predictive results. But the problem is that their position of power allows them to define the nature and timing of future paradigm shifts. This is my cause for concern.

        At a certain point, their share of both search and advertising alone gives them the ability to control the pace of innovation to suit their business needs.

        Now add to that browser, and platform, and cloud and messaging, and voice. Google has a vision which basically runs from end-to-end. They want everyone online 24×7. They don’t hide that. If they can provide you with your machine, the OS it runs, the browser it uses, the apps you consume, the place you keep your data, your services for messaging and collaboration, the core intelligence driving your content consumption and the advertising you are fed (and possibly even the network you traverse), they will have reached their goal.

        Five years ago in advising customers to watch closely for Google to make these moves I often heard I was crazy. Now we have Chrome, and Android and ChromeOS and AppEngine and overtures to create metropolitan WiMax service. In addition, their ad revenue stream has only increased.

        The trends are there for anyone to see. You can of course reach your own conclusions, but whether you search around with Yahoo, Google, or even Bing :), the course is the same. Google has enormous ambitions which it is executing well on. The problem is that they have branded themselves “not evil”, people have accepted that even though its a ridiculous notion for a company, and as a result they really arent watched closely. Within 5 years or so, if the trend continues, they will be so inexorably embedded they will pretty much be impossible to compete with.

        Many are probably actually OK with this. I dont think it is a healthy thing long term.

      • Andy Freeman

        > My point is that it is readily accepted by nearly every analyst that Google has enough critical mass

        So what? The NYT has “critical mass” in NYC.

        Which reminds me, “every analyst” said that AltaVista had search and advertising locked up.

        More to the point. The question isn’t whether Google has a large market share. It’s whether it’s insane to use another ad intermediary.

        YaBing don’t need a dominant ad market share to produce a Google-class search engine.

        Yes, Google has “ambitions”. So did Microsoft. So did IBM. So did GM and Ford.

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  • The only thing government and Google have in common is that they both start with the letter G. Google is an engine now, and not a normally aspirated one at that. They control the fuel source and are in a positon better than most to be able to collate and capitalize on the information flow to be very predictive and responsive as to future trends. Racing at the speeds that we are experiencing today requires a driver to look further ahead than governments are used to doing.

    Furthermore, Google does not just promise change and then realize that it is incapable of changing much of anything. It has realized that in today’s world it’s not just time that equals money, it’s that change equals money as well. Especially when you have the ability and resources to steer change and then be there with a product in place to service that market.

    In some ways you and I are actually the ones who are steering Google.

    They are a brilliant company and governments would do well to take some lessons from them in terms of efficiency and forward thinking.

    Are they evil?

    Probably no more so than anyone else.

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  • Yoyo

    Dear Mr. Jarvis,

    I’m from the Netherlands so I hope you don’t mind my crooked English.

    This doesn’t actually belongs in this topic, but I couldn’t find a topic(maybe a tip for a new topic, or els to make a existing topic more findable) about Google’s latest leap to atoms.

    I’m reading your book as we speak(my compliments by the way). It was not difficult to see your love for Apple as Google.

    So what do you think of the fact that Google is directly competiting against Apple( Nexus One/iPhone, Google tablet/Apple tablet, Google netbook(laptop)/Macbook)? Like you said”Atoms are a drag”.

    Please let me know…

    • Yoyo,

      Dank U.

      Your English is excellent.

      And I’m not yet sure what to think. I have the phone and it’s good but it’s no iPhone. I wish Google had used it to be more disruptive of the phone market but it wasn’t. So I’m just watching. And I”m still undecided as to whether to return the phone.

      • Yoyo

        Mr. Jarvis,

        Thanks for your fast reply. The fact that it’s no iPhone will in my (humble) opinion do more good than harm, but what’s really alarming is that the phone is ‘unGoogle’. It’s offers no platform of some kind, it’s not free or extremely cheap and the only feature that is special is Google voice(which will be available on other platforms soon).

        So my question is; Is Google getting to greedy per haps?

  • Under censorship like what’s going on in China, don’t kid yourselves,….socialists win.

    I say a *hampered internet* is better than a completely closed-shop.

    Locking up one guy here or there b/c the gov’t spied on them via Google…that’s easy to measure.

    Just because it’s harder to measure the *good* that results from the rest of the free-flowing information, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or it’s not signficant.

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  • Mark Lambert

    This one probably needs an update… According to Reuters it seems like Google is denying pulling out.

    Reading between the lines, it sounds to me like the US govt doesn’t want any additional strain on its marriage with China. After all, its really one country, at this point, under the covers.

    Maybe the “interest-states” will need to start incorporating out of Belize :)

  • Peter Drucker was predicting some of these trends in the early 90’s. Knowledge-work is now the basis of wealth – not capital. This requires inevitable adjustments to organizations, society and political structures.

    Muti-national or Transnational companies have already been where Google is – but instead of infrastructure, manufacturing or consumer-goods we are debating information and possibly, ‘knowledge’.

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  • Rick Thomchick

    To me, Google’s internet enterprises are not much different than those of the Dutch East India Company (and as you point out, we’ve seen business-states before). I’m also reminded of the Disinvestment movement and the Sullivan Principles in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

    Many right-wingers argued at the time that we should pursue engagement as with China. It’s interesting to see the result of that approach. One wonders if a 21st Century movement will emerge to disinvest in China. After all, their growth is predicated on foreign investments and international trade. The Chinese government has not forgotten what their economy was like before the market-based reforms that began in the 1980s.

    I’d also like to point out that in a very real sense, perhaps even moreso than Google, Verisign is the Internet. For all intents and purposes, they control DNS (or at least, the biggest and most important chunks), which what really makes Web sites findable etc. Google’s core business revolves around the content on those sites, which is a level up in the stack, so to speak.

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