Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Why do Governments like Whac-a-mole so much?

It seems increasingly likely that over the next 6 months the US will increase its military presence in Yemen, building its intelligence assets and generally trying to expand their ability in the country.

Of course the problem is that if we (I can't imagine a scenario in which the UK won't want to take some role) go to Yemen and get some boots on the ground, the people we're looking for will hop across the Gulf of Aden and go to Somalia. If they go there the problem is significantly greater of course, since Somalia is the quintissential failed state, and already provides a fantastic location to launder money, if you happen to have a shedload of cash you need to move, like a terrorist might.

Limewire, the popular file sharing programme was recently shut down, inspiring almost immediately Limewire Pirate Edition. Limewire have disowned this, and they almost certainly werent involved in it, but even so, the response took next to no time. I imagine someone, in some Government department got a good 5 minutes of feeling smug about their victory, before realising that the situation had changed and the years it took to crush Limewire were utterly wasted.

In the UK the Police shut down a blog which published information on how to avoid being identified if you had taken part in the recent student protests. At the time the Guardian article appeared, 78 other sources had posted the same information in protest of the blog shutdown. And of course the story appeared in the Guardian, taking it from something next to no one would have known about to being a reasonably big deal.

In each of the above cases, any reasonably intelligent person can tell you what the countermove will be without really applying themselves. Your terrorist training camp in Yemen got blown up? Move to Somali. Your website got shut down? Open another one and ask your mates to repost the material.

This raw inability to actually think strategically is both a boon and a curse. It means that by and large, Governments (in this context, I refer both to the central Government and its constituent departments) are phenominally poor at censoring things and getting in the way of innovation. Often they actually inspire innovation by simply getting in the way. But equally it can serve to shoot everyone in the foot in fine fashion.

Consider the impending "Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act" (COICA) law in the USA. Pretty much every smart person who gets it is saying this law will negatively impact the utility of the internet. The people saying it is a good idea are music industry lobbyists and politicians they pay for. The law will, it seems, probably pass. It will also almost certainly fail to work. Considering that China has failed pretty badly to censor their internet (regardless of what you might read in the mainstream press the Great Firewall is pretty porus), it seems unlikely that a country with a right to free speech will succeed where they have failed.

If Governments are to get smaller, they have to try and get smarter and more strategic, and actually think out the long term implications of their actions. In the UK we're trying to create a new Silicon Valley (according to the Government), but I almost guarantee that no one has thought about whether we need to think about non-compete laws should be loosened, one of the key successes of Silicon Valley. Instead we talk a big game and I imagine nothing will come of it.

In a world where a crazy pastor can cause the entirety of the US Government to change pace, its easy to see why its hard to think strategically, but thats not an excuse. If you allow yourself to be distracted by these things, and not make the hard choices, you're left flailing wildly and trying to survive crisis after crisis, because there will always be another media driven, nonesense crisis (or Royal Wedding). In fact, it makes you a pundit, not a leader. You're a talking head to slot in between segments.

Its not that strategy has become tactics, its that strategy has become tactics. There is no overriding strategic goal to achieve, but just a relentless series of panics which must be reacted to and moved on from.

There has to come a point at which Governments take a step back and a long deep breath and stop listening to the relentless buzz of the media, and take a moment to consider what the actual implications of their actions will be. Not only that, but what will be the implications of the result. If most smart people are saying something is wrong, but lobbyists are saying something is right, maybe you need to not listen to the lobbyists.

Whac-a-mole is fun, but its not a process, and I certainly don't want it in my Government. It leaves us weaker, it leaves us poorer, and it leaves us worse today than we were yesterday.

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