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 April 23.
But the world's largest ungoverned space, the Internet, is also facing the danger of being Balkanised with governments selectively shutting out people from accessing information they consider counterproductive, the authors caution in a telephone interview from New York. Edited excerpts:
Both of you have spoken about the Balkanisation of the Internet, and also forecast that at some time, countries could have visas on the Internet.
Schmidt: Today the Internet is a global connectivity from computer to computer. But 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: 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 close infrastructure. This will ultimately decide how easy it is to Balkanise the Internet.
In your book, you have shared a perspective about Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
Schmidt: Julian Assange's 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.
Your thoughts on cyberwars in the new digital world.
Cohen: 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.
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.
We speculated about how valuable these identities are. Fake identities, especially, could be very useful if you're facing a problem.
It will be no different from a fake passport.
What does the new digital age mean for Internet users? How significant are the differences between developed and developing countries?
Schmidt: 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. In the developing world, most people with no access to information will get it because of their phones with browsers.
Cohen: Products will be created by people in developed countries, but it will be people from developing countries who will find innovative uses for these products, since they have learnt to do more with less.
What are the learnings for Google?
Schmidt: Our position is that the world is better with a free and open Internet. 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.