02/05/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Walter Isaacson Talks To Google's Eric Schmidt And Jared Cohen About The Digital Age


Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google; Jared Cohen is the director of Google Ideas; Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of The Aspen Institute and Steve Jobs’ biographer. Both Isaacson and Schmidt are members of The WorldPost editorial board.

This interview is excerpted from the current issue of Aspenia Italia

WALTER ISAACSON: To what extent do you think that technology will undermine autocratic regimes in the future?

JARED COHEN: Well, it is one of the challenges that dictators in the future will have. Let us take a country like Iran: 72 million people, with roughly 25 percent of the population connected to the internet. When everybody in Iran is connected and every one of them has a Gmail account and every one of them has a social networking account and every one of them is using some VOIP service, the population of Iran in the physical world may still be 72 million people, but in the virtual world it may look more like half a billion people. And this presents a serious challenge for the regime in Tehran. How do they account for 500 million voices online that are coming from the same 72 million people?

ERIC SCHMIDT: And there is also a possibility of overreaction. On the internet, after all, just three people can sound like 10,000 people, and a 10,000-person social movement is a real threat to a dictator. So when those three people make themselves heard, an evil dictator might well attack them brutally. He would do better to just ignore them, because those three people will have friends, who have friends who have friends. By overreacting, the dictator will have created a resistance movement.

COHEN: Of course, a smart opposition group, as we have talked about, can also use all of this noise and online activity to hide. So all of the online voices can also benefit tremendously from a physical movement that is trying to stay outside of the vigilant reach of the regime.

ISAACSON: How important were digital networking technologies in the Arab Spring?

COHEN: In the book, we argue that revolutions in the future will be easier to start but harder to finish. I think that nicely captures what we mean, which is that technology is very useful for forming weak ties online that can turn into stronger ties in the street. Technology is very good for organizing around the lowest common denominator, which usually comes down to: get the jerk out of power. What technology cannot do is create readers overnight. What technology cannot do is create institutions that are not there. What's more, technology increases expectations: people expect the revolution to finish as quickly as it started. Now, what we argue will happen in our book is that some of the heroes from the Arab Spring countries will succeed in backing up their celebrity with real leadership skills. Ten years from now, a number of them will run for president or for parliament, and the communities and the populations will go back through YouTube and figure out which of them has better Arab Spring credentials, so the celebrity will matter.

SCHMIDT: I am not sure it is such a good idea to be the first leader of these countries. Someone has to do it of course, but when everybody gets connected, everyone's expectations rise. So here you are, and you are presiding over the rubble of this country, and everyone is now interconnected and they expect modern governors à la Europe and America and so forth, while you are still trying to figure out who works for whom and who is essentially not corrupt.

ISAACSON: I just read a book that was quite similar to yours, which was called "Bunker Hill" by Nathaniel Philbrick. It was a history of 1775 and 1776 basically about how the American Revolution started. And I was struck by the fact that the Committees of Correspondence were a little bit like Facebook, and Paul Revere was like Twitter, and he had about a hundred characters left over after his ride. Even Hutchinson's letters were a bit like Wikileaks, so nothing can stay secret. What struck me most was that the revolution was started by people who had these social networks, but it was taken over very quickly by militias who were a bit out of control -- Lexington Concord was not what they expected, after all. In the end, those who put their bodies on the line end up taking over revolutions that have been started by social networks. Is this still true?

COHEN: It is interesting that you mention this, because we throw around the term "cyber-dissident," and we apply it to just about anybody who tweets. To me, the term "dissident" still implies somebody who is willing to assume some degree of risk in the physical world. Lumping together everybody in cyberspace who opposes a regime as a "cyber-dissident" in some respects does a disservice to real opposition groups. We were in Libya about a year ago, and our observation was: where is the police? Where is the army? This entire place seems to be run by militias who, in one catalytic moment, can essentially turn this whole thing upside down. And of course that is just what happened.

SCHMIDT: What I like about what Jared said about dissidents is that there are always people of courage. When we went to China -- right after North Korea -- we heard that Chinese, for whatever reason in their culture, do not seem to focus on Tiananmen Square kinds of things. They are brutally repressed -- and people are aware of that -- but they are more worried about their children dying from environmental pollution. Indeed, the current environmental movement is a much deeper threat to the legitimacy of the government than we Americans might think. People may be more willing to put up with corruption and craziness and lack of democracy, but they also dare to take pictures of environmental disasters -- at tremendous personal risk, in view of the secret police, because, of course, the Internet has a perfect memory. They have one child -- and that child is everything in their culture -- and they are willing to fight to keep them from being killed by pollution.

ISAACSON: Tell me about Google's dealings in China, about how you felt you could not do everything you needed to do and so you moved to Hong Kong.

SCHMIDT: China is the only current country -- and in the book we argue that China will actually get into the business of exchanging censorship tools for minerals because they are trading everything else -- that does active censorship. An Internet user in China might be online, reading something about the Falun Gong or criticism of senior leaders, and get a phone call instructing him or her to get off that page within seven minutes. It is illegal to discuss what you have been asked to turn off, and if you get that phone call, you have to act immediately. At first, we thought there was a modest transition within the government, but no: they are terrified of the recent series of revolts around the world. Things are becoming increasingly oppressive. For that reason -- and because we were attacked militarily by their cyber police, and also because of the tracking they do of their dissidents across the world -- Google moved to Hong Kong. My staple joke to the Chinese is: "You know you say it is one country with two systems? Well, we like the Hong Kong system better."

ISAACSON: You think that the China system, then, is eventually doomed?

SCHMIDT: A lot of people debate that all the time, especially in Beijing, and depending on which group you talk to, you get different answers. A reasonable assumption is that you have got to address the things that are affecting the lives of middle class people. In the book we talk about the train accident, for example, where people were killed. There was a cover-up by the government, which claimed it did not really happen. It was pretty minor. And then on Weibo (their Twitter equivalent), people were outraged. Eventually, the guy running the train system was discovered to be highly corrupt and is in jail, I think under a death sentence. So the government did act. I think that if the Chinese leaders handle this sort of thing correctly -- in other words, if they can use a modified version of the dictator's handbook, one which allows a certain amount of freedom and allows the system to adjust to some of the things people protest about -- then they can survive. If they prove unable to handle these things correctly, for whatever set of reasons, then they are going to be in big, big trouble.

COHEN: And then, of course, China has another dilemma, too. We tried to talk to people about it when we were there, and they just, for whatever reason, avoided the subject. You can probably guess why. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are roughly 600 million people who are connected right now. The 600 million people who are connected today are, if I can generalize, largely Han Chinese living in the major cities. So 700 million new people are going to connect in China, likely in the next decade, and they are rural. They are ethnically and religiously diverse. They are in the western provinces and they have more grievances than just about anybody else in the population. Nobody really knows what is going to happen when all of those people come online. So when people talk about dictatorships and their ability to manage this cat-and-mouse game, they point to places like Syria and places like China, but the reality is that no dictatorship is fully connected -- no autocracy in the world is fully connected yet -- and so in reality, we do not how they will handle it.

SCHMIDT: But the important thing, and one of the great subjects we deal with in the book, is what happens when the next 5 billion join us online. Now, we two have spent a fair amount of time wandering around over the last couple of years talking to people. We have been in 30 countries, plus or minus. These people are just like us. They have the same wants and needs. It's just that they are trapped in bad systems. So when they get connected, they are going to behave like we would had we just gotten connected, and they are going to put enormous pressures on their governments. Their governments often are not legitimate in some very core ways: they are either not democracies, or there is a lot of corruption, or a lot of favoritism or what have you. People are going to react and the government is going to react back. That will become one of the major stories of the next five years.

ISAACSON: Privacy, then. Privacy versus security. How is that going to be balanced in the virtual world compared to the way it is today?

COHEN: When we set out to write this book, we wanted to look at the issue of privacy and security not just in the context of the 2 billion people who are already connected, but also in the context of the next 5 billion people who will be joining us online. What we found is that when you go to places like Myanmar, Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, people do not really seem to have any distinct understanding of privacy as opposed to security. The two become intertwined. And so we returned with a profound desire to link these two together. We viewed it as the ultimate shared responsibility. Companies have a role to play here: they must put tools out in the public domain and make them readily available and easily understandable for individuals to use to safeguard their own privacy and security. Governments obviously have a role. But I think that the most important conclusion we came to is the role that parents have. We talked to parents everywhere and our view is that where you are, kids are inevitably getting connected faster and younger. Indeed, they are coming online so fast that what they are doing and saying far outpaces how physically mature they are. And so our view is that parents need to talk to their kids about the importance of online privacy and security years before they talk to them about sex, for example.

SCHMIDT: You know, we dwell in the book at some length on the question: Is there a delete button on the internet? And we sort of conclude that there is not, and this sets up some serious problems. The classic example we offer -- and I think the way I would describe such examples is that they violate the American sense of fairness -- is the following: a high schooler commits a minor crime in America. He goes to juvenile court, is sentenced, serves his sentence, becomes an adult and behaves well. He can petition the court and say, "I would like to have my conviction expunged." Assuming the court agrees, he can then truthfully answer "no" when asked "were you ever convicted of a crime?", which every employer now asks. But the employer, of course, can do an internet search and can immediately see that the person is a liar. Somehow that just violates our sense of justice. Have we given up this principle of juvenile forgiveness? There are many recent examples in the press: people can be charged initially and the news is all over the papers, while in fact the charges turn out to be false. Even in the Boston bombings there were a series of people who were, if you will, "charged" in the press because of, shall we say, an overly quick reaction, and those people are going to have a great deal of trouble getting their reputations back. This is not, by the way, a new problem. Richard Jewel got the same treatment in the Atlanta bombing, right? So, how does fairness work in a world where the internet behaves like this?

ISAACSON: In your book you talk about the internet not having a delete button quite a bit, and it is very interesting. However, it made me think that it is not so much that the internet does not have a delete button, it is that search engines do not. Is it possible for Google to have a way to at least lower certain types of searches?

SCHMIDT: It is absolutely technically possible to do that, and of course, we debated that in the early years of Google. It is not an easy question. How do you decide who has legitimacy on such a request? Who gets to decide? Google ultimately concluded that we could not systematically and algorithmically make such decisions. A good person could make a legitimate request based on judgment and so forth, but a bad person could just as easily mask themselves as a good person and make an equivalent request, which might be damaging or unfair.

ISAACSON: And could there be a court order's way of doing that?

SCHMIDT: Indeed. In Europe, there has been an attempt to write legislation to do that, and so far it has been impossible to define the criteria. Now, it is also important to say that Google is in fact subject to the laws of the countries that we operate in, so somehow the law would have to be applied uniformly.

ISAACSON: Do you think the Internet would be better off if there were less anonymity?

COHEN: We have not talked about human judgment. More connectivity does not absolve us of the responsibility to exercise good judgment in the present and in the future. I think this is a very important aspect. However, technology undoubtedly empowers people -- for good and for ill. The bias is towards empowerment, and this whole question of whether people can be hidden or not. You can look at it in the context of the privacy and security of just everyday law-abiding users, but you can also look at it in the context of criminals, terrorists, violent extremists. You know, I think that people in the context of Boston were pleased to see that there was no delete button. It allowed an entire population of people with smartphones to collectively press rewind, if I can take a term from the analogue days.

SCHMIDT: By the way, anonymity for human beings is a relatively new concept. If you go back in time -- and you are quite the historian, Walter, you know...

ISAACSON: If you go back even to my childhood, we did not have it.

SCHMIDT: You are not that old! You know, a hundred years ago people lived in small villages -- except for two or three cities in America -- and on rural farms. Everyone knew everyone else. So everyone knew who the criminal was, everyone knew who behaved well and who poorly, and society policed itself that way. The development of modern anonymity has a number of very important benefits. In particular, it allows Americans to resist the overreach of the U.S. government (which is why anonymity has been so important historically), but it can also serve as a harbor for bad things. So, ultimately, Google will always allow for anonymity. Even if a majority of people begin to opt to identify themselves -- which is their choice -- it will be important for us to preserve anonymity. It is also important, however, that legitimate police actions be able to pierce those veils in appropriate and legal situations where there is a public safety issue. ■

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: reshaping the future of people, nations and businesses, Knopf, 2013.