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Where in the World is Eric Schmidt? This Week, Myanmar and India

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, March 21 2013

Eric Schmidt at the G8 Summit in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons).

After breaking ground for American corporate executives in North Korea this January (and taking his highly observant daughter along for the ride), Eric Schmidt is continuing his world tour of digitally repressive regimes this week.  Google’s executive chairman will visit Myanmar tomorrow, in the wake of the country’s first hesitant steps to Internet freedom.   Schmidt began his Southeast Asian trip with a pit stop in India yesterday, where the government has been pushing a tech agenda over the past year.

Speaking in New Delhi at a start-up event, Schmidt said that a laissez-faire attitude from government is a critical step towards “a modern Internet.” Schmidt cited current legislation that makes Internet companies responsible for the content posted by users.  Laws of this kind set the wrong precedent for Internet openness, Schmidt argued, and relaxing restrictions will encourage more Indian citizens to get online. 

“Right now, you have under 10 per cent of the population using the Internet. Imagine what would happen if 80 per cent of the people can get on to the Internet,” The Hindu quoted Schmidt.

Yet barriers to Internet use in India remain multifaceted – inadequate infrastructure, poverty, and other social factors are still running up against the government’s attempts to digitize the country. Basic mobile is the workaday communication system for citizens across class lines. When the government staged a Google Hangout last week, one frustrated official called the event “elitist” live on camera.

Still, when Eric Schmidt touches down in Myanmar tomorrow, the Internet landscape will be much smaller.  According to 2012 statistics, only about 1 percent of the population has web access.  Online content is still strictly policed, though President Thein Sein has pledged to join the Open Government Partnership by 2016. 

Unlike his visit to the DPRK, which was ostensibly personal in nature, Schmidt will be acting as a representative of Google, in meetings with senior governmental officials.  United States sanctions against Myanmar were loosened last year after the country undertook a series of human rights reforms. A delegation of US tech companies, including Google, was present at a trade meeting in the country last month. The country is now looking for international providers to build up its telecom structure, which could present a major opportunity for Google’s Android platform.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.