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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.

By Nathan Gardels, Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen / May 8, 2013

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt gestures during an interactive session with students at a technical university in Yangon, Myanmar, March 22. In an interview, Mr. Schmidt says 'there is an empowerment tool for people in every society that they’ve never had before....Good people and bad people are being empowered. How a society responds will determine the outcome.'

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP/File

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In an interview, Nathan Gardels talks to Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen about their new book, “The Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.” Mr. Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google. Mr. Cohen is the director of the Google Ideas think tank. Mr. Gardels is the editor of the Global Viewpoint Network and NPQ magazine. 

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NATHAN GARDELS: You paint an exciting portrait of the arriving digital age where most of the Earth’s 8 billion future inhabitants will be empowered through technological inclusion and connectivity. The potential ranges from instant translation to health care through personalized DNA to thought-controlled motion technology for prosthetics.

But you don’t shy away from the central paradox of the digital age: The more we know or learn though connected networks, the more is known and learned about us. Every click and search is recorded as “permanent data” on the “cloud.” The same apparatus that enables unprecedented connectivity enables unprecedented surveillance of the individual.

As you say in the book, “The impact of the data revolution will be to strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information....The communication technologies we use today are invasive by design, collecting our photos, comments and friends into giant databases that are searchable and, in the absence of regulation...[it is all] fair game” – whether for any snooping government or aggressive marketing company.

What checks and balances are necessary that will favor the potential while limiting the downside of this paradox?

ERIC SCHMIDT: For all the positive potential you noted for the wealthy countries, the empowerment of individuals through mobile devices linked to networks is even greater in places where people have little or nothing in terms of education or even phone landlines for communication.

On the “central paradox” you point out, each country will resolve this issue in a different way. Their response to the empowerment of their citizens will depend on the culture and the trust level of the government. While it is theoretically possible to create a police state that knows everything and tracks everybody, there are many reasons why that is not likely to happen, including the fact, first and foremost, that dissidents will fight against it. There are also technological solutions like encryption that will make it possible to protect private communication.

JARED COHEN: In reality, so far, there is no autocracy that has been fully tested on this point because there is no autocracy that is fully connected. In the future there will be a “dictator’s dilemma” as well as a “citizen’s dilemma.”

The dictator’s dilemma arises from the fact that citizens will have multiple identities online. Populations of 70 million will really look more like populations of 500 million. That will create so much noise and activity beyond the capacity of dictators to control no matter how hard they might try.

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