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[liberationtech] Google's Eric Schmidt on the Net & Democracy

Yosem Companys companys at
Fri Jun 29 20:32:37 PDT 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Posted on: June 29th, 2012

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and
Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting
key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing
small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker.
Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read.

Google enabled people to organize themselves. Arab Spring was a
failure to censure the Internet. Especially in Libya, five different
militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net.
It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet
revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of
the incessant media coverage. And it’s very easy to start what some
call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These are leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in
Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80
militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were
repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they
organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and
social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its
citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build
a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge
society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle
income GDP. We thought that if we gave them free access to info, the
Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved to Hong Kong,
on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the
Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user
that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what
the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize
Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone
organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes
authoritarian control. Still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how it is to learn about the
differences among people in and within countries. I continue to
believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way
to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because
these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far
we can get. You can sue for justice. In the worst case you can
actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will
eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature.
The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried
because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where
you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving.
But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our
political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better
decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get
bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our
democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of
innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all
others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms
got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time.
We’re going to learn how to rank them. Google should be able to hear
all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing
that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was
from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and
our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces
want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against
it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. And as you move through life,
more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about
that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake,
and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring it out. The Atlantic [our
host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out
how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in
scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a
tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We
grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund
long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The
problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it,
but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be
accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link
structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already
there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less
money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And
it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections.
Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all
media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the
info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The
tech lets us express our human nature. We need a way of sorting
politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.


Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction
is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. You were just typing and
now you’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is
releasing a rep[ort that says that we can share bandwidth to get
almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that
leaves most of it unused, using interference and databases we think we
can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of
frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic
areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a
grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty
of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception.
Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we
allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there
may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can
be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that
express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the
lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow
the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose
you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from
competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it,
or unless they could get away with it, or...]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes
because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d
have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow
their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the
crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are
aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think
there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention
span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to
believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against
that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes
it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers.
They should do measurable outcomes, AB testing. There’s evidence that
physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a
collaborative effort, then another problem…

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