Google may be the most frustrating, hard-to-fully-understand company in the technology business. To be sure, the company puts out a vast collection of useful, powerful, and inexpensive (often free) products and services that seemingly define the Internet for many users and companies. At the same time, the company tries to take principled public positions on key topics ranging from privacy to Net Neutrality.
And yet, the company often seems blind or at least insensitive to its own role - conscious and otherwise - in these same controversies.
Both sides of the coin were on display in a well-attended SXSW panel called The New Digital Age, starring Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and former technology advisor to Hillary Clinton, who co-wrote a book of the same name. Interviewed by journalist Steven Levy, the pair had lots to say about how the Net is - and isn't - helping spread positive change. But they came off as seriously tone deaf in discussing how people feel about their own company.
Easier to start, harder to finish
With the Net, Schmidt said, "revolutions are going to be easier to start, but harder to finish." Cohen added that events have shown that the Net is useful for organizing a revolution, but not so much afterward.
They were talking about the Arab Spring, but they could have been refering to how the Internet itself is changing the world. Google may have jumped into the Digital Age with the best of intentions, but the results of those changes are spinning out of anyone's control, and the ultimate resolution remains unclear.
Schmidt acknowledged the dual-edged nature of technology's power with an anecdote about Syrian government checkpoints that ask travelers for their mobile phones and log-in info, where "if you don't give it to them, they put a gun to your head." Mobile phones can help the agents of change, he noted, but if someone is captured, those same phones can be used to entrap their friends and contacts.
The power of the Internet "ends at the point of a gun," Schmidt said, and "there's not much our industry can do about it." At the end of the day, he said, states with military and political power are the only ones who can stop these atrocities.
And that holds true for average citizens as well as activists and revolutionaries, who may know enough to take extra security precautions. Ordinary citizens may think they're safe, he said, but they're not and they don't realize it.
That's true in the U.S. as well. Challenged with the idea that some people believe the U.S. government is the number one adversary of internet privacy, Schmidt responded, "all I know is that we were attacked by the Chinese in 2010, and attacked by the U.S. in 2013." That kind of moral equivalency will make a splash, but also makes it hard to take him seriously.
More important to some, while Schmidt said Google is fighting back by encrypting and protecting its data "in ways that we've disclosed and some we haven't," he did not address Google's own role in collecting vast amounts of data in the first place. “We're pretty sure that information inside of Google is safe from any government’s prying eyes,” Schmidt said, “including the U.S. government,” claiming that “you’ve got to fight for your privacy or you'll lose it.”
So, does that mean we should be fighting with Google?
Perhaps that’s why Julian Assange - who also addressed SXSW - has called Schmidt and Cohen "witch doctors for technological imperialism," as Levy said. Referring to Assange and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Cohen warned that “there’s a danger in people self appointing what should be known and unknown.” But neither he nor Schmidt seemed to see the irony in Google taking that position.
Schmidt is also “very worried” about the pushback against tech companies getting rich while the rest of the economy languishes, saying “the data suggests the problem gets worse,” because 99% of people have seen no economic benefits over the last decade. “The joblessness or income distribution problem will be number one problem in many countries," he said, and we don't know exactly how to solve it.
But once again, his solutions seemed more self-serving than contrite, claiming that “you can't hold back technological progress.” By using the word “progress,” Schmidt implicitly undermined the complaints of the people left behind. And his proposed solutions -- more education, more analytical education, more immigrants, more capital formation, and so on, most likely won’t do much for the people already negatively affected.
For instance, he added, the key to creating jobs is to create more fast-growing startups, the so-called “gazelles” that drive job creation. While that might help the overall economy, it’s hard to see how more tech startups are going to help the folks being pressured by today’s startups.
To top it off, when asked about how the benefits of the tech boom are becoming concentrated among fewer and fewer people, Schmidt agreed that it was a problem. But then he commented on Facebook’s recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, which employs just 50 people. His response?
"Good for them." The audience gasped.