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.