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Google’s Eric Schmidt on the Future Digital Police State

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, April 22 2013

YouTube sensations have no idea (Youtube video screengrab)

When Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt traveled to North Korea in January, techPresident picked up on his daughter’s astonishing observations of a staged photo-op of students “engaging” with the Internet. They took the trip as part of his research for the book “The New Digital Age,” co-written with Jared Cohen, which goes on sale Tuesday. Schmidt and Cohen elaborated on their experience in a long Wall Street Journal essay this past weekend. They concluded that, while the Internet is not an incorruptible, unimpeachable force of good, “no country is worse off because of the Internet.”

Schmidt and Cohen describe in detail the dark side of the Internet, the digital equivalent of a police state. They describe data mining reminiscent of Minority Report: not just of Facebook posts or Twitter comments, but of real-time monitoring of citizens and biometric information that can identify individuals through unique physical attributes. “Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan.”

They ask the hard questions, like “How do you explain to people that they are a YouTube sensation, when they have never heard of YouTube or the Internet?” They encountered this particular roadblock when trying to engage the Pyongyang traffic police, featured in YouTube videos with over 250,000 and 950,000 views respectively. “Even the idea of the Internet has not yet permeated the public’s consciousness in North Korea,” Cohen and Schmidt observe.

Schmidt has previously expressed the opinion that North Korea would fall (even more) behind if they don’t start soon: “Once the Internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do something. They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government of North Korea has not yet done.”

In addition to the trip to North Korea, Cohen and Schmidt interviewed the likes of Julian Assange, Henry Kissinger, Mexican mogul Carlos Slim Helu and the former prime ministers of Mongolia and Pakistan, while researching their book. They also address privacy issues in their book, although they do not offer any concrete solutions for protecting personal privacy, nor do they dwell on Google’s own brushes with regulators over privacy issues.

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