Ex-Google CEO shares vision

2013-04-22 09:30
Google chair Eric Schmidt. (Picture: AP)

Google chair Eric Schmidt. (Picture: AP)

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San Francisco - Some illuminating books already have been written about Google's catalytic role in a technological upheaval that is redefining the way people work, play, learn, shop and communicate.

Until now, though, there hasn't been a book providing an unfiltered look from inside Google's brain trust.

Google executive chair Eric Schmidt, who spent a decade as the company's CEO, shares his visions of digitally driven change and of a radically different future in The New Digital Age, a book that goes on sale on Tuesday.

It's a technology treatise that Schmidt wrote with another ruminator, Jared Cohen, a former State Department adviser who now runs Google Ideas, the internet company's version of a think tank.

The book is an exercise in "brainstorming the future", as Schmidt put it in a recent post on Twitter - just one example of a cultural phenomenon that didn't exist a decade ago.

Changes

The ability for anyone with an internet-connected device to broadcast revelatory information and video is one of the reasons why Schmidt and Cohen wrote the book. The two met in Baghdad in 2009 and were both struck by how Iraqis were finding resourceful ways to use internet services to improve their lives, despite war-zone conditions.

They decided it was time to delve into how the internet and mobile devices are empowering people, roiling autocratic governments and forcing long-established companies to make dramatic changes.

The three years they spent researching the book took them around the world, including North Korea in January over the objections of the US State Department.

They interviewed an eclectic group that included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Mexican mogul Carlos Slim Helu, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the former prime ministers of Mongolia and Pakistan. They also drew on the insights of a long list of Google employees, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The resulting book is an exploration into the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead as the lines blur between the physical world around us and the virtual realm of the internet.

Schmidt and Cohen also examine the loss of personal privacy as prominent companies such as Google and lesser-known data warehouses such as Acxiom compile digital dossiers about our electronic interactions on computers, smartphones and at check-out stands.

"This will be the first generation of humans to have an indelible record," Schmidt and Cohen predict.

Privacy education

To minimise the chances of youthful indiscretions stamping children with "digital scarlet letters" that they carry for years, online privacy education will become just as important - if not more so - than sex education, according to Schmidt and Cohen. They argue parents should consider having a "privacy talk" with their kids well before they become curious about sex.

Not surprisingly, the book doesn't dwell on Google's own practices, including privacy lapses that have caused the company trouble with regulators around the world.

Among other things, Google has exposed the contact lists of its e-mail users while trying to build a now-defunct social network called Buzz. It scooped up people's passwords and other sensitive information from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

In 2012, Google was caught circumventing privacy controls on Safari web browsers, resulting in a record $22.5m fine by the US Federal Trade Commission. European regulators have a broad investigation open.

Google apologised for those incidents without acknowledging wrongdoing. Schmidt and Cohen suggest that is an inevitable part of digital life.

"The possibility that one's personal content will be published and become known one day - either by mistake or through criminal interference - will always exist," they write.

The book doesn't offer any concrete solutions for protecting personal privacy, though the authors suspect that calls for tougher penalties and more stringent regulations will increase as more people realise how much of their lives are now in a state of "near-permanent storage".

"The option to 'delete' data is largely an illusion," Schmidt and Cohen write.

Many of the book's themes expand upon topics that Schmidt regularly mused about in speeches and interviews that he gave as Google's CEO. Some of his past remarks, particularly about the loss of privacy, rankled critics who believe Google had become too aggressive in trying to learn more about people's individual interests so it could sell more ads, its chief source of revenue.
- AP

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