Google’s Schmidt: We likely are in the last years when states can really censor speech

Google’s Schmidt: We likely are in the last years when states can really censor speech

By Emily Schneider
Best Defense office of cyberpower affairs

We’re all familiar with the concepts of "soft power" and "hard power" in international relations, but there’s a new kind of power afoot, at least according to Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. That power is network power, the exchange of ideas fueled by the growing global connectivity that sparks change. Network power is shaking up the current world order by allowing ideas to spread more rapidly and across more borders than was possible before.

Eric Schmidt, speaking to students at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on Nov. 20, said that technology, and network power, will allow for the emergence of new leaders in the private and public sectors. In fact, he said, it already has in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, it worked better in Tunisia than in Egypt, but both countries demonstrated how the masses were able to mobilize around a movement through their local and global networks to initiate widespread change. According to Schmidt, the difference in outcome between these two countries shows the effects culture, education, and societal values have on network power.

There are still serious hurdles in allowing network power to take root in some countries where the state censors the Internet. Schmidt, using China as an example, pointed out that the reason the government allows only state-approved social media sites instead of ones like Facebook is to have control over the exchange of ideas within their borders. But he was quick to note that this is actually a futile effort; he believes China will change and it will be because of tech-enabled networks.

But change won’t happen without the right kind of global support. Schmidt said that education is critical in fostering the development of ideas, especially the types of ideas that have the power to translate into social movements across networks. Creativity in expressing ideas and generating new solutions to old problems must be encouraged and human compassion will always be necessary for engaging in cross-cultural dialogue. But on a statewide scale, change in government policies, like immigration, is also necessary. States cannot limit their ability to innovate because immigration regulations don’t foster recruitment of top talent in a global pool. Even more critical, governments cannot afford to have regulations and public policies that chill freedom of expression and movement of ideas across networks.

In China, he observed, censorship — that is, perceived control over the populace — also has a chilling effect on entrepreneurship and innovation. Sure, the Chinese government believes their ability to censor the Internet is a benefit, but what they don’t see is the downside. They’re wasting so much potential — for change, for innovation, for the creative exchange of new ideas — all for the sake of some semblance of control over an ultimately uncontrollable force.

Schmidt said he strongly believes that that all censorship around the world will end in a decade, provided the values of free speech and individual empowerment continue to spread via local and global networks.

Emily Schneider, a recent graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, works for the National Security Program at the New America Foundation, where Tom is senior advisor on national security and Eric Schmidt is chairman of the board.