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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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GARDELS: This raises the issue of the fragmentation or “Balkanization” of the World Wide Web into several Internets. Are we are likely to see a “virtual clash of civilizations,” with those who extol individual freedom on one side, and those who extol community and religion on the other? Iran, for example, wants to build a “halal Internet.”

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SCHMIDT: I’m not sure I agree. We’ve never had a situation in history where we have this level of individual empowerment, especially in those societies that are more communally oriented.

We don’t know what will happen. What is completely new is that there is an empowerment tool for people in every society that they’ve never had before.

Yes, culture matters. But now culture will inevitably evolve. China, for example, is seen historically as a communal society, but now it’s every individual trying to get rich quick.

What will they do now, especially the younger generation, when that individual is so vastly more empowered? Will they stay communitarian, will they be more individualistic? Will they be some combination of both depending on the issue?

As we’ve discussed, one thing that the virtual world enables is the proliferation of identities, in one individual and within societies and even civilizations. I’m not sure the old boundaries will still apply in the same way we are used to thinking of them.

Here is the bottom line: Good people and bad people are being empowered. How a society responds will determine the outcome.

COHEN: People associate the Internet with the free flow of information. One big question is what happens when the more closed-minded, autocratic societies that come online are told they will be restricted. At a certain point, a critical mass of people either have used the Internet or have expectations. Anything less than the free flow of information will be seen as having something taken away. We’ve seen time and again, in Egypt and Iran for example, that creates a backlash.

GARDELS: The recent Boston Marathon bombings and the tale of the Tsarnaev brothers raises the issue of “nuts on the Net.” Connectivity empowers the individual, or a small group, asymmetrically, allowing them to cause lots of damage to large numbers of people.

After the IRA bombings in London, the authorities placed closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras all over central London. Should we monitor everyone who accesses a jihadist website?

SCHMIDT: We are not suggesting that. The question about Boston is why there are not more such attacks when so many people are on the Net. That is because the police have been able to foil lots of plots because they are watching.

Recent surveys show that, as in London, people are willing to accept CCTV-type monitoring if it enhances their security. Will it be part and parcel of the digital age, or a momentary response to a tragic event? We’ll have to see.

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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