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.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP/File
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.'

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. 

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.

The dilemma that citizens or dissidents will have in the future is that you can’t storm a ministry with a smart phone. At the end of the day, there is a lot that connectivity can do to get people in the streets. But there is a fundamental need for alternative leadership and institutions to go beyond mobilization and actually change regimes.

Connectivity will make revolutionary movements easier to start, but harder to finish.

So, the future of autocratic regimes in the digital age will be some of the old, and some of the new.

SCHMIDT: Yet, undeniably, the fact that billions more people will be online, even under autocratic regimes, will mean billions more with more options in life or who will be witnesses with smart phones to government repression. Think of all the billions that will come online in rural areas who won’t need to urbanize to join the marketplace. Think of the billions who will be able to go beyond rote learning and engage in interactive critical thinking outside the classroom.

GARDELS: The other side of the coin of shared data and connectivity, as you say in the book, is the ability now of citizens to “police the police.” Some have called this “sous-veillance,” or the monitoring of government from below.

Sina Weibo in China is a good example of this. Every day, 600 million people criticize the government through microblogs on every issue from tainted milk to train wrecks and pollution to corrupt officials. Surely this is a huge power shift?

SCHMIDT: I agree with that. Weibo is a kind of combination of Facebook and Twitter. It could turn out to be a significant political force because it is not completely censorable. Even dictators care about their reputations. Even monopoly governments can be shamed.

In the book we talk about how the Weibo outrage over the Wenzhou bullet train accident led to exposure of the corrupt railroad minister, who was put in jail.

COHEN: We also saw in Juarez, Mexico, how the power of citizen connectivity can shame corrupt officials into cleaning up their act. Citizen activists there were able to photograph corrupt acts by the police on their smart phones and spread the images in the very communities where the police lived. Even in places that have long lived with corruption, this online shaming will ultimately change behavior.

GARDELS: In your book you make the fascinating observation about the emergence of two parallel worlds – the virtual alongside the physical.

Because of the power of Weibo in China, the authorities’ strategy is to ensure that no two people allowed to vent on the net ever meet in the street to start another Tiananmen-type protest.

Will the physical repression be able to contain the virtual protest in the end? Will cyberspace one day spill over into real space?

SCHMIDT: That is a question that must haunt China’s leaders: How long can they allow a tidal wave of complaints in the virtual world, but crack down on any action in the real world?

The Chinese I’ve spoken to believe that, eventually, the digital world will win out. Ultimately, the authorities will run out of police, censors, and other tools of oppression.

The citizens will overwhelm the source of oppression against them.

There is a negative view – that the tools of oppression will create a data record from the virtual world which can ultimately be used to imprison, jail, or otherwise terrorize all of the dissidents. In other words, the tools win.

What we are seeing today is a fight between the two models.

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.

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.

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.”

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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