Eric Schmidt on Technology vs. Dictatorship

How does the executive chairman of Google see the role of smart phones and social media in driving democratic change globally?

Dan Bayer / Aspen Institute

It's been year-and-a-half since the outset of the Arab revolutions that brought down Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's longstanding regime in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak's in Egypt; three years since the beginning of the Iranian election protests of 2009-2010; and more than three years since the start of civil unrest in Moldova, following the announcement fraudulent parliamentary election results, where protestors' self-organizing via Twitter earned it the media tag "the Twitter Revolution." It's widely accepted by now that these and other pro-democratic protest movements globally would have been impossible without smart phones and social media. But the significance of these technologies to democratization is still a matter of debate.

If it occurred to you to wonder what the view on this issue looks like from the top of the tech industry, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg asked Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In the broader discussion that followed, Schmidt showed a radical optimism about the interplay of technology and democratic society in the U.S.—and politically developed countries generally. But on the question of tech's role in translating democratic aspirations into democratic change in autocratic states, he was conspicuously more tough-minded.

Before Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, Schmidt pointed out, the regime had extensive control of civil society and virtually total control of media—all media but the Internet. An active opposition had meanwhile been struggling against the government for years, but it had no effective way of organizing itself. "One way to understand the Arab revolution," Schmidt said, "is that it was a failure to censure and control the internet." The lesson for dictators? Get ahead of the curve on that. The good news for democracy advocates: This is hard to do.

But as Schmidt acknowledged, it's also much harder to finish an Internet-based revolution than it is to start one. Goldberg remarked that the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East were, if not truly "leaderless," intensively crowd-sourced efforts—and certainly weren't driven by, or didn't give rise to, organized leadership in the mode of Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Is there some way to leverage new technologies to organize a revolutionary leadership? Schmidt conceded that there's not an obvious answer—and implied that the answer might be no. The success of a democratization movement is the competition of political parties, and in the contemporary proto-democratic Arab world, Islamist parties are faring much better than Western-style liberals. Schmidt's among those who think this is nevertheless a fine thing: Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has won the support it's won because of popular support: This is a democratic choice, but it's also one that puts the Islamist party in a position of accountability, where there actions will matter more than their ideology; and if they fail to govern effectively in the domestic sphere or to represent Egypt's interest effectively in the international sphere, Egyptians will, as other democracies do, throw the bums out.

It's a position that may be overly sanguine about what we can reliably expect given Egypt's current state of democratic consolidation, but it's certainly not overly sanguine about the role of technology in political development.

Schmidt's account of the Arab Spring, and the Egyptian revolution in particular, emphasizes the cluelessness of Arab autocracies about the destabilizing potential of new technology. So how should we understand this tech's potential in, say, China—a politically repressive single-party system with ability to track dissidents and move against them on the basis of information that the regime can pull from the social networks themselves.

"Let me frame an Arab Spring question in the Chinese context," Goldberg said. "Is there any way that what happened in Tahrir Square could happen in Tiananmen Square. Chinese dissidents could organize via social media, Schmidt said. They'd use the Twitter-like Chinese service Sina Weibo. But the results of any attempt to organize would be a few protestors, a handful of reporters, and about 50 police officers.

Still, Schmidt insisted, mobile technology and social media will change the world, because they will be ubiquitous. Citizens (and not-yet-citizens) everywhere will be able to use them as their best protection. When state actors exert illegitimate power, it will become easier and easier for people to publicize that—and embarrass the government and its leadership.

What about the grim counter-examples to this theory that we're seeing now? Google's own YouTube is, Goldberg pointed out, replete with video footage of the Syrian regime's atrocities, while Bashar al-Assad ‎and the Ba'ath party seem anything but humiliated.

"There's always an evil person," Schmidt answered. "But that doesn't mean everyone's evil. Most governments, even autocratic governments, can be embarrassed."