The ongoing release of leaked American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is, undeniably, a headache for the State Department. Hundreds of thousands of cables discuss every topic under the sun from corruption to organized crime ... and quite a few deal with American technology firms. Collusion between U.S.-based firms and the State Department is an old story that's illuminated in strange ways by WikiLeaks. For outside viewers, WikiLeaks offers a fascinating window into the sometimes-seedy infrastructure of high-level innovation.
Government bureaucrats have long been interested in guaranteeing American intellectual property abroad. Fighting the spread of counterfeit items and preventing piracy of movies, music and television programs is something of interest to many government agencies. American culture—love it or hate it—is one of our top exports. Even if it's difficult to quantify just how many foreigners watched Lost or how many people listened to Lady Gaga's last album in South Asia, culture is as important an export as oil or heavy machinery.
Several leaked cables display ongoing interest at the State Department about how prominent American firms and industry alliances safeguard their intellectual property abroad. One diplomat in Beijing wrote a cable on Apple's efforts to fight Chinese counterfeits, titled "Apple Takes a Bite Out of Chinese Fakes. In the cable, the State Department notes—in their words, "as amazing as it seems"—that Apple did not form a global security team until 2008. That year, Apple hired a team, formerly working at pharma giant Pfizer, to fight China's growth industry in bootleg iPhones and iPads. The cable discusses Apple's efforts to combat Chinese piracy in minute detail. Although it does not detail any collusion between the State Department and Apple, the cable contains sharply worded criticisms of a perceived inability at Apple to effectively work with Chinese bureaucrats. In other words: The State Department thought Apple was a day late and a dollar short in stopping iFones from showing up on Canal Street.
In other cases, the State Department actively colluded with American interests to make sure that intellectual property wasn't stolen. Back in 2009, U.S. government officials teamed up with the MPAA and RIAA and, as a cable reveals, put heavy pressure on Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to revise his country's internet policy. Ultimately, the American efforts succeeded: Spanish ISPs were successfully dragooned into adopting pirate- and torrent-unfriendly safeguards for their services.
For larger tech firms, the cables also reveal the kind of assistance they can receive when working in foreign markets. One cable revealed how the Department of Justice stumped for Oracle to merge with Sun in the face of European Union opposition. Bureaucrats at the DoJ actively lobbied their European counterparts to let the deal go ahead; the EU had worries for the future of Java and MySQL. In this case, when a politically sensitive deal was facing opposition, the U.S. government did not hesitate to throw their weight behind a private business.
Ultimately, these—and the hundreds of other related WikiLeaks that cover everything from big pharma to genetically modified crops—prove how deeply embedded the United States government is in the infrastructure of ideas. If, as the cliché goes, "the business of America is business," bureaucrats and diplomats are all too eager to give a helping hand. The real question, however, is how deep these ties go: Is government assistance strictly for the big dogs, or do smaller firms—and even startups—also benefit from the larger effects of American intervention in foreign countries?
[Image: Flickr user Dave Fayram]