Packer dismissively discusses Google's work on developing smart parking meters for San Francisco, but doesn't mention that the company has a former State Department staffer running an internal think tank working on topics ranging from media coverage of the Mexican drug war to human trafficking.

Today, Google is arguably one of the most influential nonstate actors in international affairs, operating in security domains long the purview of nation-states: It tracks the global arms trade, spends millions creating crisis-alert tools to inform the public about looming natural disasters, monitors the spread of the flu, and acts as a global censor to protect American interests abroad.

The White House was quick to describe the humanitarian mission — led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to North Korea Jan. 7 — as “unhelpful.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called it “ill advised.” The administration’s reaction shows its main focus is on seeking U.N. Security Council support for sanctions against North Korea because of that country’s long-range missile launches, presumed to be part of a nuclear program.

Executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former Gov. Bill Richardson said they urged North Korea's government to drop barriers to Internet access to boost its impoverished economy. Officials in the isolated country, they added, appeared open to technological exchanges.

A private delegation including Google's Eric Schmidt is urging North Korea to allow more open Internet access and cellphones to benefit its citizens, the mission's leader said Wednesday in the country with some of the world's tightest controls on information.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s planned trip to North Korea promises few returns for the company’s shareholders. But for the world’s most locked-down country, where only a few thousand citizens have internet access at all, his visit could offer the strongest hint yet of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s tortured longing for openness.