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
"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
"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