Google At SXSW: The Internet Is Accelerating Social Change On A Global Scale

Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen led a discussion at Friday’s SXSW event in Austin, Texas, which described the ways technology is impacting privacy, security and policy on a global scale.

The two Google execs said they visited at least 35 countries, a majority of them unstable autocracies such as North Korea, and examined the impact technology is having on citizens in those countries.

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As citizens are empowered with mobile phones and connectivity, Eric Schmidt said “revolutions are going to be easier to start, but harder to finish.” 

According to a report from Pew Internet, emerging nations are catching up to the U.S. when it comes to technology adoption, specifically of mobile devices and social media.

Although Internet access is not nearly as prevalent in developing countries, those who do have access are using social media to reach out to the world. For instance, in Egypt, 88% of Internet users are using social media—taking to those websites to drive global awareness of violence and uprisings around the Arab Spring. Stories surrounding the Syrian civil war are also being told on social media—so much so that the government is attacking its citizens to combat information leaving the country. 

Cohen said the situation in Syria is so bad that people are getting killed over their social media posts. 

Grassroots revolutions like these have inspired governments to try and control the Internet. But what they’ve found is that by turning off the Internet, they admit they are afraid. Schmidt said dictators’ new models revolve around infiltrating and manipulating the Internet, as opposed to shutting it off completely.

Per Cohen:

In the major cities in Damascus, the government has set up check points and ask you for your phone and login information… My friend’s brother resisted and they held a gun to his head.

According to Cohen, his friend’s brother eventually relented and gave the government officers his phone. The officials saw something posted on the man’s social media page that was sympathetic to the opposition, and so he was shot.

Protecting Citizen Data 

When last year’s Edward Snowden revelations revealed governments were collecting personal data from tech companies, Google was very surprised by the behavior of both the U.S. government and Great Britain’s security administration. 

Since that time, Google now encrypts data at multiple points of source by using 2048-bit encryption and perfect forward secrecy that switches keys at every session. In other words, it’s now way more difficult to get Google’s data than it was before the NSA revelations. 

Both Schmidt and Cohen support whistleblowers and leaking potentially scandalous information, but the Google executives believe there needs to be better methods for disclosing information and protecting those who come forward. 

“Without oversight and without people watching things, misuse can occur,” Schmidt said. “Somebody within those organizations should have said, ‘What happens when someone discovers this?’” 

Keeping The Internet Open

The Internet is an open highway, available to people without restrictions in many parts of the world. But as governments fight for control of their people, they often fight for control of the information portal that continues to give them a voice.

In the book The New Digital Age, Schmidt writes about the balkanization of the Internet, and said at the SXSW lecture that it’s entirely possible for governments to create their own intranets to control the flow of information.

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Iran is the first country to propose such an option. In 2012, the country pushed for a “national Internet,” which promised to wall off a part of cyberspace for its citizens’ use and therefore be able to control every aspect of it. As a result, Google blocked Gmail in Iran shortly thereafter.

“We’re worried that not only will the balkanization will occur, but gradually in a way that no one notices it,” he said. “They might use child safety as a starting point.”

Russia is another country that seeks to control online information. (Ironically, it’s where Snowden is allegedly staying to avoid U.S. prosecution.) Russia allows for the arbitrary removal of videos that feature young children, but the country casts a wide net to take down any videos they disagree with. 

People want to control their privacy and governments want to control their citizens’ data, which has typically caused a great deal of dissonance. But at Friday’s SXSW talk, Schmidt discussed two new trends in technology that are driving both the people and the government to take control of their own information.

“One is empowerment of citizens with mobile devices—they are supercomputers,” Schmidt said. “The other thing is that information once published publicly is no longer revocable.”

As Google continues its push to make Internet available on a wider scale through projects like Fiber and Loon, its executives are making sure those information superhighways continue to remain open for everyone, even as the world’s governments vie to control the pipes. 

Lead image by Selena Larson for ReadWrite

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