By William J. Vogt
Growing digitization has brought issues of Internet governance and security to the forefront of political action today. It is, therefore, noteworthy that a major player in Silicon Valley has entered the growing intellectual discourse on cyber policy. Such a stature adds a unique, well-regarded perspective to debates and could represent the beginning of a significant branch of cyber political philosophy.
Eric Schmidt (former CEO and current executive chairman of Google), with his expertise in both business and technology, is an important thought leader when it comes to the development of human strategies towards containing cyber threats and leveraging web technologies effectively through policy. As a leading figure at Google (arguably the most important organization in cyberspace today) his views will move the discussion of cyber policy forward.
He has contributed meaningfully to the development of digital culture and politics theory in a few ways:
Building off of an emerging trend in technology policy (at least in the US), he has assumed a quasi-diplomatic role for his country and those countries where free, open Internet is most valued (over state control). In fact, he recently traveled to North Korea, inspecting and challenging the repressive Internet situation there.
He appears to be a high-profile subscriber to a more skeptical school of thought in cybersecurity, one that believes that the Internet has the great power to divide the world (instead of, say, uniting us all towards beneficial revolution). Mirroring the current offline state of affairs, Schmidt’s view of divisions is based on the following principles:
- Cyber warfare (as defined by a traditional meaning of “warfare”), in which states sponsor hackers and threaten enemies’ defense and critical infrastructure capabilities, is alive and well. In addition, the ease of online knowledge sharing coupled with certain nations’ policy alignment in cyberspace will lead to the creation of organized, multinational blocs of digitally repressive states, complete with instant, closely-integrated strategic dialogue on how to improve authoritarianism 2.0 (including, but not limited to state-sponsored online discrimination or persecution of targeted groups);
- Asymmetrical cyber threats, in which disparate groups of individuals or offline terror networks pool technical expertise to create physical, financial, and/or reputational damage to their targets, are equally important to consider. Security issues like cyber “kidnapping,” where sensitive information is held for ransom, are easily translatable into the cyber crime space.
- The efficacy of treaties, laws, and other rule sets is severely put into question when it comes to cybersecurity policy. Governments can legislate to protect domestic networks, fortify military and agency databases, etc., but it is impossible to police a Wild West of instant communication across billions of people around the world.
- Negotiating strategy for creating workable international frameworks for cybersecurity is also politically difficult. State-represented international organizations like the UN’s Information Telecommunication Union have only produced gridlock over Internet governance norms. This raises the question of whether or not leaders of opposing multinational cyber policy blocs will be the best way to ensure meaningful political solutions to this problem. For now, critical data remains at risk and leaders must wade through an unsolidified mess of a multipolar world, making domestic policy an easier and more worthwhile form of cyber policy-making in the short term.
- The elimination of privacy as we know it is a real part of our near-term future, and must be dealt with accordingly. We need to adapt to this emerging reality through education. For example, Schmidt believes parents need to talk to their children early and often about the inherent risks of using the Internet.
- That said, he also represents a moderately liberal view on the Internet freedom scale. Under his stewardship of Google, the company has accepted domestic restriction to enter and operate in certain markets. Also, neither he nor the company appear to forcefully advocate for movements like Anonymous or Wikileaks.
Given the current international political situation in cyberspace, these principles highlighted by Eric Schmidt represent issues that business and policy leaders must tackle in order to ensure meaningful cybersecurity within society. These questions will likely grow in complexity and urgency in the coming years and decades, as new generations gain power and influence. Consequently, thought leaders like Schmidt outline key foundations in a subject that is set to suddenly and rapidly grow in research and importance.
William Vogt is the author of “Social Media in China: Supporting One-Party Rule in a 2.0 World” (Sinomedia, 2012).