Eric Schmidt and the end of an era

Gibbs sees the opinions of Google's CEO on online anonymity as the end of an era

Do you know that there are such things as "cars"? And did you know that I could walk up and shoot you and then, using a "car", I could be 60 miles away in as many minutes? It would be almost impossible to find me. Or I could rob a bank and, using a "car", make my getaway.

These "car" things and the "roads" and "highways" they run on are obviously very dangerous. If they should fall into the wrong hands all manner of dastardly deeds could be undertaken, which is why I say that we must make sure we know exactly where people using these "cars" are all the time.

What we need is a tamper-proof GPS transponder in every vehicle that sends the authorities real-time location data. There should also be heavy fines and jail sentences for non-operational transponders. If we are to be a safe society there should be no such thing as anonymous drivers or anonymous vehicles.

Just imagine for a second if I was serious … you'd think I'd lost my mind. Now, consider what Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently suggested: "In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you."

Schmidt also said: "Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It's very important that Google and everyone else respect people's privacy. People have a right to privacy; it's natural; it's normal. It's the right way to do things."

I love the way Schmidt put it, "Google and everyone else" … not "all of us" but "Google" … and then "everyone else". This is a big "tell," indicating how Schmidt is playing his hand and how the issues are being framed.

Anyway, what Schmidt is arguing for is that there should be no such thing as anonymity and by "asynchronous threats," I assume Schmidt means undesirable or illegal behaviors where the causes and effects are separated in time.

If this is indeed what Schmidt meant then what he's suggesting is not just that Internet access should only be available to authenticated users, but their online activities should be tracked and recorded because, without a behavior trail, authentication alone won't address the detection of "asynchronous threats."

In the past I've admired Eric Schmidt for his business acumen (abandoning Novell for Google was pretty damn sharp) but, in the light of these comments, I can only conclude one thing: Mr. Schmidt done lost his mind.

Schmidt also opined: "If you are trying to commit a terrible, evil crime, it's not obvious that you should be able to do so with complete anonymity. There are no systems in our society which allow you to do that. Judges insist on unmasking who the perpetrator was. So absolute anonymity could lead to some very difficult decisions for our governments and our society as a whole and I don't think we want that either."

Schmidt had to have meant "it's obvious that you should not be able to do so with complete anonymity" rather than what he actually said, so we'll assume that was just a misspeak because had he meant what he said, we'd be having a wholly different discussion.

Here Schmidt is using the "bogeyman under every bed" argument; he is asserting that "terrible, evil crime[s]" are likely consequences of a presupposed "complete anonymity" as if the latter were easily achieved and the former, the "terrible, evil crime[s]", were commonplace.

The truth is that "terrible, evil crime[s]" are rare and anyone who is capable of committing such acts are most likely capable of circumventing any limitations that authentication might put in their way, for example, by simply stealing authentication credentials.

And that's only part of the issues I have with Schmidt's position. In fact, there are so many problems with what Schmidt is arguing that it's hard to know where to start.

For example, let's say that authentication could be achieved through some kind of federated system involving "trusted" institutions such as banks and, as an Internet user, not having authentication by an "authority" would severely limit your access to all mainstream Web sites and services. You know this won't be free so, ultimately, we'll all wind up paying more … which is just what we all need.

But let us, for the moment suspend our disbelief and posit that we could do six impossible things before breakfast. Let's say we could somehow implement a workable authentication system and that we could use that to audit what everyone does online so people trying to commit "terrible, evil crime" are thwarted.

In that case, which government agencies get to access the data? Frankly, I trust none of them to play fair over the long term. Remember the old saw: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Having that level of control over, and insight into, the way the Internet is used would be incredible power.

Every authoritarian government would have a field day if they were allowed to get their hands on the data and every democratic government would find endless reasons to mine the data for "national security" purposes.

But all that fantasy aside, here's the reality: My friends, we are, sadly, at the end of an era, the era of being able to believe that Google could really uphold their slogan of "Do no evil".

A harsh fact of the business world is that the majority of large corporations are ultimately doomed to chase profit with what amounts to psychopathic zeal despite the noblest sentiments of any or all of their management.

In the case of Google, Schmidt's opinions clearly show he doesn't really believe in the whole Google "Do no evil" shtick in any manner that resembles how the public understands the phrase.

Add to that the fact that Google and Verizon have just publicly declared their depressingly corrupt take on network neutrality and it all underlines the fact the Google is turning out to be just like any other commercial behemoth: Soulless, heartless, self-absorbed, shameless, and only really interested in the bottom line.

And that's a real shame. We all loved the idea that a huge corporation like Google could hold to a white hat hacker ethic while becoming insanely successful. We wanted the possibility that one of the most profitable corporations on the planet had a beating heart and a poetic soul. It seems we were very wrong.

Gibbs isn't surprised in Ventura, Calif. Relate your ennui to backspin@gibbs.com.

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