Technology and information penetration in China will eventually force the Great Firewall of China to crumble and even lead to the political opening of the Chinese system, according to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, who stepped down as Google's CEO last year, remains the head of Google's board and its chief spokesman. He roams the planet speaking to audiences and exploring countries where Google could expand its operations. He has been called Google's "Ambassador to the World," a moniker he doesn't promote but doesn't dispute. He sat down for a long interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival last week.
"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."
When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."
The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.
"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The Chinese government is the most active state sponsor of cyber censorship and cyber espionage in the world, with startling effectiveness, Schmidt said. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong. That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government.
More recently, Google has taken an aggressive approach to helping users combat government cyber censorship, by doing things such as warning Gmail users when Google suspects their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks and telling users when search terms they enter are likely to be rejected by Chinese government censorship filters.
Schmidt doesn't present Google's focus on state-sponsored cyber oppression as a fight between Google and China. Google's policy is focused on helping users understand what is happening to their accounts and giving them the tools to protect themselves, he explained.
"We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression," he said. "The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage.... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights. So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others."
Google still has hundreds of engineers working inside China and maintains a rapidly growing advertising business there. But the Chinese government is likewise doing a lot to make using Google difficult inside China. There are weeks when Gmail services run slow; then mysteriously, the service will begin running smoothly again, Schmidt said. The Chinese censors sometimes issue punitive timeouts to users who enter prohibited search terms. And YouTube, which is owned by Google, is not visible in China.
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Meanwhile, Schmidt has been circling the globe looking for ways to expand Google's outer frontiers. His last international trip took him to four conflict or recently post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
"I've become particularly interested in the expansion of Google in sort of wacky countries -- you know, countries that have problems," he said. "You can't really know stuff unless you travel and see it. It helps with your impressions and your judgment."
Schmidt believes that smartphone technology can have a revolutionary effect on how people in the developing world operate and he is researching how smartphone use can help fight corruption and bad governance in poor countries. He also sees Google's expansion into the emerging markets as a timely business move.
"The evidence is that the most profitable business in most countries initially is the telecom sector. The joke is that you know the Somali pirates have to use cellphones, and so the strongest and most fastest-growing legal business in Somalia is the telecom industry," he said.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that open information systems can encourage and enable political change, according to Schmidt.
"I think that the countries that we're talking about all had very active censorship regimes, and they failed to censor the Internet. They wired the phone systems, the television was controlled, the newspapers were controlled; it was very hard to find genuinely new dissident voices except on the Internet. So you can think of what happened there as a failure to fully censor, and so it's obvious why we feel so strongly about openness and transparency," he said.
Unlike in China, Google has taken a more active role in other parts of the world by developing tools to spread information that could be used to foster more active democracies, such as with its project to organize and disseminate election information and political candidate data in places like Egypt.
"We're helping with the elections. So we're trying to help them with getting information to the candidates, and these are countries where Google is central to the public sphere," Schmidt said.
Google is also expanding its role in compiling data on government actors and their actions to aid people in the fight against corruption, but here Schmidt warns that only when there is a legal system to prosecute bad actors will this data be transformative.
"You need the data, and then you need somebody who's willing to prosecute the person who lies," he said. "All you have to do is have the information and then the penalty that has to be applied in a fair way, and it would change these countries dramatically."
Information is not enough to topple regimes, but in the end, regimes that fight the openness of information are doomed to fail, he said.
"The worst case scenario is the citizens have enormous information and the government is completely unresponsive. That would be Iran, for example. At some point, that's unstable," said Schmidt. "At some point, it gets worse ... but before they overthrow the current leader, they have to have the information to do that. That's why transparency matters."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.