Alec Ross: Cross Swords with Control Freaks

The ex-digital diplomat on what technology can and can’t accomplish in geopolitical risk

Most of us would be dead on our feet if we traveled for work 40 percent of the time, but for Alec Ross, who sits on eight boards of directors, it’s a nice break.

“I still travel a lot… but it was 75 percent of the time when I was in government. And I’m spending less time in places like the Congo and Islamabad.”

“In government” is a modest way of saying he was once senior advisor on innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And what he did in those risky locales just might help corporations figure out how to deal with hostile people in hostile environments. But, even though he’s been heralded as a “tech guru,” Ross stresses that technology is not a panacea.

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“What I’ve learned is these technologies themselves are inanimate. They take on the values and capabilities of those who use it. So, you can never extract the human component from it.” He adds, “What I do believe is that, the technology fundamentally changes political ecologies. It changes the nature of who is participating in political process, and how they are participating. Now, in some cases that might be good for liberal democracy, but in other cases it might advance the goals of, you know, a caliphate.”

Ross likes to say that power-mad regimes like that are in trouble—as he put it in a 2012 TED Talk, “The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.” Anyone trying to cling to old power structures, even in the corporate world, is going to find that “control has been largely lost and is not coming back.

“If you run a pension fund, there ought to be very significant controls in your work. But, I imagine pension fund managers feel like some of their control today versus 20 years ago has been eroded.” On a geopolitical level, however, there are still some regimes holding onto to their control-freak ways, and corporations still have to deal with them. Take China’s record on Internet freedom, which hasn’t deterred many Western companies from setting up shop there.

“I think that they have to cross swords with government. You know, I think that it’s necessary to speak up and speak out.”

“Fifteen years ago, maybe a large global enterprise could have said, ‘You know, forget China. We won’t comport with its norms, with its demands.’ But if you do that today, then you are not necessarily acting in your shareholders’ interests.” While Google leaving the mainland for Hong Kong in 2010 made a big splash, Ross says that was “the exception, rather than the norm.”

Companies can at least get into China; other regions are harder to crack. In 2013, Ross wrote an op-ed for Foreign Policy titled, “Light Up the West Bank,” where he argued that high-speed mobile Internet could slow the Palestinian territories’ “slide toward militancy.” The Middle East might seem like a high-risk environment for communications companies, but corporate buy-in isn’t the problem.

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“The equipment has been purchased and is sitting in airport hangers in Tel Aviv. The operators are willing to spend the capex today to build those networks,” Ross says—but Israel is restricting their access to the territories. What’s a telecom to do?

“I think that they have to cross swords with government. You know, I think that it’s necessary to speak up and speak out.” But, he says, some equipment manufacturers are timid about taking on Israel because it’s an attractive market. “The market in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv… is so attractive that they don’t want to piss off the government and risk their business there.”

Despite his call for improved tech in the West Bank, Ross knows better than most that cell phones aren’t about to solve all the world’s problems. Some roadblocks can’t be hacked—like corruption.

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Working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ross and his State Department colleagues helped draft legislation to allow soldiers to be paid by mobile, rather than by bank notes that could easily end up “in suitcases of colonels and generals.” They thought they had checked out everyone in the supply chain—but they forgot about the central bankers, who were bribed by generals and held up the regulations that would allow the program to start.

“And you know, these guys are such horrible pieces of s—t that they basically said, ‘As soon as you pay us more than what the generals are paying, then we’ll issue the regulations. Oh, and by the way, it sure would be helpful if you wrote the regulations for us, since we don’t know how to do this.’

“So in this case, it was just good, old-fashioned corruption and bad governance.”

Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2014 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

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