Technology

Google Chairman: ‘We’re Going to End Up Breaking the Internet’

Eric Schmidt said the Internet as we know it will fail unless governments reform their surveillance practices.

National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Oct. 8, 2014, 10:59 a.m.

Google Chair­man Eric Schmidt warned Wed­nes­day that the In­ter­net will soon un­der­go massive up­heav­al if gov­ern­ments re­fuse to al­ter the way they spy on oth­er coun­tries.

Speak­ing at an event in Cali­for­nia hos­ted by Sen. Ron Wyden, Schmidt said the In­ter­net will splinter in­to walled-off frag­ments un­less di­git­al sur­veil­lance prac­tices of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency and for­eign in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are re­formed.

“The simplest out­come is that we’re go­ing to end up break­ing the In­ter­net,” Schmidt said. “Be­cause what’s go­ing to hap­pen is, gov­ern­ments will do bad laws of one kind or an­oth­er, and they are even­tu­ally go­ing to say, ‘We want our own In­ter­net in our coun­try be­cause we want it to work our way, right? And we don’t want these NSA and oth­er people in it.’”

“The cost of that is huge,” Schmidt ad­ded. “The im­pact “¦ is severe and get­ting worse.”

As an ex­ample of the po­ten­tial for di­git­al frag­ment­a­tion across bor­ders, Schmidt high­lighted Ger­many’s de­cision this sum­mer to end a con­tract with Ve­r­i­zon be­cause of rev­el­a­tions re­gard­ing the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of mil­lions of phone re­cords.

Schmidt was joined by oth­er ex­ec­ut­ives from large tech com­pan­ies on a pan­el dis­cuss­ing the eco­nom­ic rami­fic­a­tions of the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s sweep­ing sur­veil­lance prac­tices, which came un­der in­tense scru­tiny fol­low­ing the leaks by Ed­ward Snowden last sum­mer. Oth­ers agreed with Schmidt’s fore­bod­ing pro­gnos­is of the fu­ture of the In­ter­net ab­sent rad­ic­al changes in di­git­al sur­veil­lance.

“The no­tion that you would have to place data cen­ters that serve com­munit­ies with­in [that] re­gion is fun­da­ment­ally at odds” with the design of the In­ter­net, said Face­book Gen­er­al Coun­sel Colin Stretch. In such a scen­ario, coun­tries would elect to store data on loc­al serv­ers, where it would be in­ac­cess­ible to the in­ter­na­tion­al In­ter­net com­munity.

Amer­ic­an tech com­pan­ies have long cau­tioned the U.S. gov­ern­ment that their glob­al com­pet­it­ive­ness is be­ing crippled be­cause of erod­ing mis­trust among their users, who fear that data may not be safe from in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

“This is go­ing to cost Amer­ic­ans jobs,” said Wyden, the chair­man of the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee. “Good-pay­ing, Amer­ic­an jobs, when wage growth is one of the premi­er is­sues of our time.”

Wyden, an Ore­gon Demo­crat who also serves on the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, has been among Cap­it­ol Hill’s most vo­cal crit­ics of NSA sur­veil­lance. He has yet to en­dorse le­gis­la­tion, dubbed the USA Free­dom Act, that would rein in the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion of tele­phone metadata — the num­bers and time stamps of calls but not their ac­tu­al con­tents — be­cause of con­cerns the bill does not go far enough.

But Wyden, in his clos­ing com­ments, said he would like Con­gress to tackle sur­veil­lance dur­ing the lame-duck ses­sion. He said the Free­dom Act “makes a lot of pro­gress as it is writ­ten now” but that he and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rand Paul, would like to see lan­guage ad­ded that closes the “back­door loop­hole,” which al­lows war­rant­less searches of Amer­ic­ans’ In­ter­net data in­cid­ent­ally col­lec­ted dur­ing for­eign sur­veil­lance.

“We can pass a good bill, a good bi­par­tis­an bill, by the end of the year,” Wyden ad­ded.

Ex­ec­ut­ives from Mi­crosoft, Drop­box and Grey­lock Part­ners, a ven­ture cap­it­al group, also at­ten­ded Wed­nes­day’s dis­cus­sion, which took place at a high school in Pa­lo Alto.

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