Dictators 'infiltrate' web, not shut it down, says Google boss Eric Schmidt

Google chairman says he is concerned by manipulative new approach of authoritarian governments spooked by popular uprisings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 9:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 11:11pm

Dictators are taking a new approach in their responses to use of the internet in popular uprisings, according to Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.

"What's happened in the last year is the governments have figured out you don't turn off the internet; you infiltrate it," said Schmidt, speaking at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

"The new model for a dictator is to infiltrate and try to manipulate it. You're seeing this in China, and in many other countries."

Schmidt was interviewed on stage alongside Jared Cohen, director of the company's Google Ideas think tank. The session, moderated by Wired journalist and author Steven Levy, took the pair's The New Digital Age book as its starting point.

Levy wondered whether their enthusiasm for technology's potential role in popular uprisings has been dampened in the last year by events in Egypt, Ukraine and elsewhere.

"We're very enthusiastic about the empowerment of mobile phones and connectivity, especially for people who don't have it," said Schmidt. "In the book, we actually say that revolutions are going to be easier to start, but harder to finish."

He suggested that governments have realised that simply trying to block internet access for citizens is unlikely to end well, partly because it shows that they are "scared", which may encourage more people onto the streets, not less. Hence the infiltration approach.

Cohen talked about a recent visit to the Syrian border, where he heard about checkpoints where military personnel demand people hand over their devices and passwords, so they can check what they have been posting on social networks, or even what their friends have been posting.

Schmidt was pressed on last year's revelations of surveillance by agencies including the National Security Agency in the US, and the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain.

"The solution to this is to encrypt data at multiple points of source. We had already been doing this, but we accelerated our activities," he said. "We're pretty sure right now that the information that's inside of Google is safe from any government's prying eyes, including the US government's ... We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010, we were attacked by the NSA in 2013. These are facts."

The conversation moved on with Cohen talking about leaks, and the fact that leaks are age-old, but what is new is "the ability to do it in bulk". Cohen added that "there's a danger in people self-appointing in relation to the task of what should be known and what shouldn't be".

Schmidt and Cohen met WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on their global travels, and debated that exact question.

"I think both of us felt who gets to decide what information is made public is a pretty fundamental issue in a democracy. I don't think we want random people leaking large amounts of data," said Schmidt. "I don't think we want random people leaking large amounts of health records or tax records, for example. The information, once disclosed, is there forever, and can be used against people."

The conversation turned to the potential for "autocratic countries" (Cohen's words) to band together to "edit the internet" as it is seen by their populations. Schmidt said such "balkanisation" was a big concern for Google.

"Imagine if the Arab world decides to delete all references to Israel?" he said, before pointing to current examples elsewhere in the world.

David Cameron unveils UK-German teamwork on developing 5G system

Britain and Germany would co-operate on developing the next super-fast mobile telephony network, 5G, Prime Minister David Cameron told the opening of the world's biggest hi-tech fair.

Cameron said the initiative was one of three areas he wanted Britain and Germany to collaborate on to "pool ideas, share data, innovate and to lead on the next big ideas".

The fifth-generation, or 5G, network would enable a full-length film to be downloaded on the internet in one second, Cameron said on Sunday at the official CeBIT inauguration in the northern German city of Hanover, attended also by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"This is a prize that researchers all over the world are going for," he said, unveiling the collaboration between Germany's Dresden University and Britain's King's College University in London and the University of Surrey.  AFP