Mumbai: The Internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t really understand, say Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen in their new book, The New Digital Age, released on 23 April. But the world’s largest ungoverned space, the Internet, also faces the danger of being Balkanized, with governments selectively shutting out people from accessing information they consider counterproductive, the authors caution.
In their book, Schmidt and Cohen, who first met in 2009 in Baghdad, say they were struck by the proliferation of mobile phones at a time when even access to food, water and electricity could be unreliable, which led them to conclude that increased access to technology worldwide would have far-reaching impact on every part of society.
Since then, both have travelled around the world to understand the nature of a future-connected globe. In a phone interview from New York, they shared their thoughts on threats in cyberspace from countries such as China and Syria; how virtual identities could become bigger than physical ones; and the future of cyberwars as the next five billion people come online to gain the most and face the worst drawbacks of the digital age. Edited excerpts:
Both of you have spoken about the Balkanization of the Internet, and have also forecast that at some time, countries could have visas on the Internet. One would assume, then, that geopolitics is drawing borders in cyberspace.
Schmidt: That is roughly right. Today, the Internet is a global connectivity from computer to computer. We are concerned about a set of threats. The first is the threat from China that exports technology which allows countries to use very active censorship. Next is Syria, which even shuts down the Internet. Governments will break the Internet under the guise of protecting their citizens, but, in reality, are doing this to keep themselves in power.
Cohen: There’s a transnational aspect to this too. If what Eric is describing should happen, you can imagine a situation where like-minded states based on religion or shared values band together to tailor the Web in collaboration. You can imagine an autocratic cyber union, an Islamic Web, and so on. Also, 57% of the world’s population is living under autocracies that do not have a technology infrastructure as yet. If the citizens of these countries want to come online, their governments can build an open or closed infrastructure. This will ultimately decide how easy it is to Balkanize the Internet.
But what’s your sense, since we get the feeling that cyberspace is turning out to be a mirror of the offline world...
Schmidt: If that’s true, and I hope it’s not, it will be a terrible tragedy because the openness of the Internet has benefited society globally in so many ways—direct connections, direct exchange of ideas, and so on. Governments that try to shut this down are really setting societies back.
Cohen: The reason we wrote about it (Balkanization) in the book is because we so desperately don’t want it to happen. It’s easy to be optimistic about the future, but it’s irresponsible to only be optimistic. By talking about the challenges, we hope to make it so ingrained in people’s mind that everyone sees it as a real challenge and opposes such Balkanization. It helps that privacy groups and companies such as Google are opposing clampdowns on the Internet. It’s crucial for Google to see this happen. It’s very easy for governments to do this without informing its citizens about it.
What does the new digital age mean for Internet users? How significant are the differences between developed and developing countries?
Cohen: Computers will split duties depending on what they’re good at. Technology is not the panacea that is going to fix all the world’s problems. But we do believe technology is relevant to every single issue in the world. We start with the premise that no country is worse off because of the Internet’s arrival. Add five billion people from countries where there are oppressive governments, conflict, instability and the statement becomes all the more true.
Schmidt: There are very large differences and a lot of it depends where you start. Developed countries, in our frame of reference, are those with ubiquitous broadband and fast applications, while the developing world is still struggling with how to get reasonable amounts of bandwidth over the wireless networks, and is primarily handset-based. In the developed world, you will see an explosion of applications that use that bandwidth such as self-driving cars, that can help you with your life. In the developing world, most people with no access to information will get it because of their phones with browsers
Cohen: In the future, people will do more with less. To test this out, we travelled to places like Kenya, Rwanda, Chad, Nigeria, and some countries in Asia, too. We noticed an interesting partnership that will play out in the future between people in the developed world who build the products and distribute them to those in the developing world, and people from the developing world will export back to the developed world. This implies that while products will be created by people in the US and so on, it will be people from developing countries who will find innovative uses, since they have learnt to do more with less.
In your book, you say the virtual world will overtake the real world, but will also complicate it.
Schmidt: One may choose to have different virtual identities for different reasons, akin to having separate phone numbers for office and personal use. The virtual identities will be fun in countries that are reasonable, but in surveillance states, it may become important to have a secret identity as well as a public identity so that you can evade the authoritarian eye of the police online.
Cohen: We enjoy playing out a dictator’s dilemma in the future because there will be so many people with so many identities. That will create a lot of noise, a lot of activity, and for a regime that is used to dealing with physical people, it becomes much more difficult to figure out between what’s noise and what’s real. That, we believe, will be the net benefit to a population that is looking out for civil liberties.
You’ve said in your book that these virtual identities could also give rise to a new online currency and an online black market.
Schmidt: We speculated about how valuable these identities are. The fake identities, especially, could be very useful if you’re facing a problem. It will be no different from a fake passport.
Cohen: We were in Pakistan last year and met a group of women who had been attacked with acid. The scars they bore, unfortunately, also carry a stigma in the physical world. All these women we met were living in a house together and were happy running online businesses, and they had virtual identities that did not carry the same physical scars, denoting the power of technology to give someone a second chance and having an identity in a society where stigmas are often unfair.
You have shared a perspective about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and the complexity of dealing with selective and planned leakages on the Internet.
Schmidt: We spoke with Julian Assange two years ago, before his flight to the embassy. We only spoke to him about his vision for information. He said that if you’re a government that wants to do something really bad to a large number of people, you will have to write it down. And in the course of writing it down, if the information is leaked, then you could be pressured by people not to do it. His core argument was that systematic evil has to be written down, and if that is done, it has to be leaked by somebody. I like that argument.
The problem that I had with this argument is who got to make the decision about what to leak. His answer is: himself. We try to make that point in the book without trying to endorse the principle of leaking, which is a more complicated thing. The mechanism that Assange proposes is problematic.
Cohen: Much has been written about Assange, and the authors have arrived at different conclusions. We thought it better to ask Assange how he sees the scenario 10 years later, especially since he has a technical background. We concluded that while it’s tempting to think that one might see a proliferation of WikiLeaks type of platforms in the future, these things are very difficult to do and preserve, and there won’t be more than a few during a particular period of time since it’s very hard to maintain trust in these platforms.
This brings me to the other point that you’ve raised in your book—that of small protest groups being mistaken as large ones by people and governments.
Cohen: We see that in general the adage is true that nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet. It’s possible for me, myself and I with clever social networking to make myself seem as representing a million-member movement. Governments will not know how to take this seriously, and misinterpreting this as a major protest, they may react and end up legitimizing the small protest. A dissident could use this anonymity to make the government turn him/her into a martyr, and actually end up creating a movement. It’s sometimes best to ignore such protests. This will become all the more difficult with virtual identities.
This can also get dangerous because governments will find it difficult to respond appropriately in the absence of knowing how many real people are participating in the movement. This can also lead to marketing wars as we have described in the book. Apply that to a place such as Syria where protests and rebel groups seek to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The world knows very little about all these different groups, how they are financed, etc. In the future, such rebel groups would create a marketing strategy, devoted to showing they’re the good guys, and garner international sympathy when, in fact, behind closed doors, they have an Al Qaeda type of agenda.
In your book, you have made a specific reference to the unique identity (UID) project in India. But critics also say UID could compromise privacy, smacking of an Orwellian trend.
Schmidt: I think Nandan Nilekani (head of the UID project) is a great Indian. You could design that system in a way that could violate privacy, but they were careful not to do so—it is a simple authenticator. In a country such as India with a lack of birth records, etc., it’s very difficult to have a modern financial system without authentication. You referred to the word ‘Orwellian’. These acts would be done by others and not UID itself.
What are your thoughts about cyber wars in the new digital world?
Cohen: The future will all be about conflict. States will do things to each other in cyberspace that they will never do to each other in the physical world. Take the case of the US and China. In the physical world, while both have a strained relationship, they are also economic allies. In cyberspace, the relationship is more of an adversary. In the physical world, there would have been a very strong reaction to say, for instance, a nuclear threat. In contrast, the reaction to the Stuxnet virus (said to target Iran’s nuclear programme) was relatively muted.
You have also spoken about data permanence and its implications.
Schmidt: The transition is from relatively not connected to relatively fully connected, and relatively memory-less to relatively memory-full. This is a one-way transition, which means there’s no delete button on the Internet. For instance, in the US, a minor who has done a mild crime can ask a judge to delete the record when s/he becomes an adult. On the Internet, you cannot delete that information. Also take the case of some information being stolen. It can’t be deleted.
But what about the Digital Dark Ages (possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia that have been stored in an obsolete and obscure file format) in the age of Big Data?
Schmidt: It’s very hard to know what 100 years will look from now. If digital data is stored by a device, that could pose a problem such as the one you’re describing. All I can say is that if information is online today, it will be available in some form, a 100 years from now. It’s relatively easy to maintain its currency if information is online. My problem is that 100 years from now, people will have access to all information we generate, some of it not so savoury, since it cannot be deleted.
What are the learnings for Google?
Schmidt: Our position is that the world is better with a free and open Internet. I was in India with Jared a few weeks back and we were struck by how vibrant the country’s democracy was and how impressive its growth was. From our perspective, Google will push really hard for openness, transparency and full connectivity without filtering and with a lot of empowering. Of course, there will be issues such as those highlighted in our book, but the overwhelming message from a Google perspective is to keep pushing on the power of information, the power of search, access to mobile devices, and the themes that we have talked about. We have teams within the company that have worked very hard on legal matters, but at the end of the day, the principle is what we care a lot about.