When Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea, party officials asked him to describe future updates to the company’s Android phone system. Schmidt refused but said this incident and others — including Iran’s plans for a “Halal internet” with no Israel — show how despotic leaders want to embrace technology even as they try to deny it to their citizens.
Speaking on Friday at the Google Big Tent, a free speech event in Washington, Schmidt said he is “worried” about a “balkanized” internet as governments try to chop up the web just as people in places like Burma are discovering it for the first time.
Schmidt also offered examples, drawn from his just-published book The New Digital Age, of how the internet is helping in some of the world’s most benighted places. He cited women in Pakistan with faces and eyes burned by acid, who could nonetheless have lives as “virtual people,” earning a living and connecting with the world online. He also described smuggling systems for micro SD cards in South Sudan to show how people will go to desperate lengths to get information.
Schmidt’s anecdotes come partly from his extensive tours of scary countries, which included a stop in North Korea that brought criticism from the State Department.
For Schmidt, his travels reinforced how sinister governments are casting a growing shadow over the mobile phone revolution.
“We’ll hear the distinct voices of the citizens of these countries that we haven’t heard before,” he said. “These people are just like us but their governments are not like ours.”
The situation creates moral dilemmas for companies that make technology that connect people but that can also be co-opted as tools for oppression. As Google’s head lawyer, David Drummond, explained at the outset of the event, the most important battles over free speech have shifted from books and newspapers to technology. Drummond warned that bad governments are now turning to the United Nations and international treaties in an effort to exercise control over the world’s telecommunications infrastructure.
The event, which was hosted by Google and Bloomberg and included media executives discussing Chinese censorship, took place a day after the company’s latest update to its Transparency Report on global censorship.