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Google's Eric Schmidt: Internet will let Chinese rise up

In an interview, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen say the connectivity of the digital age will empower individuals as never before. This will make revolutionary movements against autocratic regimes such as China easier to start – but harder to finish.

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COHEN: Yet, we remain optimistic because the population so outnumbers the regime online. The virtual world is a “public square” much more vast than Tiananmen Square. And you can’t send in the tanks to crush the netizens.

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GARDELS: There have been some high profile cyberattacks traced to China, on Google itself a few years ago and more recently those traced to the People’s Liberation Army building in Shanghai.

China appears to be the most aggressive in probing others. However, Mike McConnell, who used to run the National Security Agency in the US, has said that “everyone is probing everyone else, including the US.”

What do you know on this front?

SCHMIDT: We don’t know what the US is doing. What we do know is the countries engaged in probing include China, Iran, Israel, Russia, and some Western European nations. There is certainly enough documentation to show that these countries, and some subset of them, are continually active.

The problem is attribution. You can’t be quite sure who is doing what.

COHEN: In this book we are trying to shift the conversation from one about those established autocracies we know, like China or Iran, to those parts of the world where the infrastructure does not yet exist.

There are only a handful of companies that provide the physical technology infrastructure for connectivity. There are currently four main manufacturers of telecommunications equipment: Sweden’s Ericsson, China’s Huawei, France’s Alcatel-Lucent, and Cisco in the United States.

Whichever infrastructure gets there first will help determine whether the future of cyberspace in much of the world will be more free and open or wired for surveillance and control. 

GARDELS: The term you have coined to describe cyber conflict of the future is the “new Code War.” During the cold war, effective deterrence was only enabled by transparency: Both the US and Soviets knew which weapons the other had and where they were targeted. We assured each other of mutual destruction.

How will deterrence in the Code War work, particularly when the absence of attribution is a key feature?

COHEN: The ideas of “mutually assured destruction” by attacking infrastructure through cyberwar is certainly something we can speculate about. The cold-war analogy for today touches closer to the “proxy wars” between the US and the Soviets.

To get back to the technological infrastructure point, it will be a battle for the future between open and closed. Some of the closed-minded will be looking to build up their cybercapacity in a new version of the minerals-for-arms trade.

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