Eric Schmidt has moved from the Googleplex to the Davosplex.
I don’t mean that the chairman and former CEO of Google has actually set up shop in Davos, the picturesque little town in Switzerland and the highest city in Europe. Davos is notorious for hosting the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of the rich, famous, powerful, and those who take Thomas Friedman seriously.
However, since stepping down as CEO in 2011, Schmidt has been stepping out as a public intellectual and all-around evangelist for his vision of the democratizing power of the Internet and (what increasingly amounts to the same thing) Google. It’s in this sense that he’s joined the oracular chorus chanting for neoliberal economics and all-consuming “security” policy espoused in the Davosplex.
The Davosplex manages to be exclusive without being particularly insightful; its signature gathering may well be the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is neither festive nor ideas-driven. No one who asks nuanced questions about the world or offers complex explanations for complex phenomena need apply for admission. Extreme wealth helps. But those who merely pander to the extremely rich are welcome as well. If you tell people who run companies that the work they do will unleash all sorts of great things on the world, well, you can expect a warm greeting at the gates of the Davosplex.
Last week, Schmidt had a kind of Davosplex coming-out moment in a D.C. conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter is a longtime Davosplex operator in her own right: a former dean and current professor at Princeton, a former communications director at State Department, and now the president of the New America Foundation, where Schmidt was speaking.
Slaughter asked him about the ongoing revelations from the documents lifted and released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Since May, these leaks have shed light on the NSA’s Prism program, under which an agency operative such as Snowden evidently had “direct access” to the data held by data-heavy companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and Google. Google officials have fervently denied knowledge of any program called Prism (although, importantly, they do not deny knowledge of the NSA’s ability to gather information from Google—they just quarrel with the semantic question of whether this surveillance regime goes by that name). Google also denies that the NSA has “direct access” to the personal data of the hundreds of millions of people using the search engine. This distinction has generated a slew of technical guesses about what “direct access” means to Google’s data engineers.
At the New America Foundation panel, Schmidt confirmed that the characterization of the NSA programs contained in Snowden’s documents is “roughly accurate.” What’s more telling, though, is what Schmidt makes of the implications of these programs.
“The real danger [from] the publicity about all of this is that other countries will begin to put very serious encryption—we use the term ‘balkanization’ in general—to essentially split the Internet and that the Internet’s going to be much more country specific,” Schmidt said. “That would be a very bad thing, it would really break the way the Internet works, and I think that’s what I worry about. There’s been spying for years, there’s been surveillance for years, and so forth, I’m not going to pass judgment on that, it’s the nature of our society.”
This is a classic bit of Davosplex doublespeak on two levels. First, it’s not at all clear how the possible “balkinization” of the Internet represents any sort of genuine threat, given that this system of communication has never been anything but fractured and uneven in the first place. In both this talk and in his recent embarrassing book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (written with former U.S. State Department Internet evangelist Jared Cohen), Schmidt assumes that “The Internet” actually does operate in a seamless fashion across the world, despite the long-standing differences in regimes of censorship and surveillance among the experience of using networked communication in places like Turkey, India, and China. (You know, most of the world.) Only a fantasist would complain that “The Internet” is becoming fractured when it has always been so.
Perhaps, then, the “real danger,” as Schmidt sees things, is that there is no longer a trustworthy way to communicate sensitive information across electronic networks anywhere in the world. This is an understandably sensitive claim to be advancing if you happen to be the corporate visionary who’s corralled the vast bulk of such communications under your logo. More than 80 percent of all Internet traffic flows through the United States. And most of the rest rides on services of companies like Google.
So this is where Schmidt’s second bit of Davos-style rhetorical head-faking occurs. If anything threatens the vision of a global network through which people can confidently post poems, publish videos of political protest, fall in love, make travel plans, or engage in commerce, it’s the realization that the United States government can track the record of all of this personal activity.
It’s a still greater buzzkill to realize that the state-financed monitors of our online habits can then jump to any number of conjectural conclusions about the individual motives and the oft-coincidental circumstances that shape our digital communications.
But Schmidt insists that massive government surveillance is really no big deal—and that the most needful solution is that most vague and agreeable of digital virtues in the global consensus-sphere: transparency.
To make this panacea go down smoothly, Schmidt first urges would-be critics of the practice to adopt the fatalist view that spying, like the poor, will always be with us. He’s also quite certain that political action offers no basis for reclaiming online privacy—a rather curious posture for someone who enjoys his own direct (and presumably secure) line of communication with the president of the United States.
Then again, after spending a decade to build the world’s most profitable private surveillance system, Schmidt probably just can’t get all that upset when others engage in similar practices. After all, he once said: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” And he also said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
In other words: Maybe the government can be transparent about its own spying activities, if computer users are prepared to be equally transparent. Only there’s no remote smidgen of an acknowledgment here that one of the parties in this equation—the national surveillance state—can be far more selective about the ultimate disclosure and, for the simple reason that it can hoard, redact, and manipulate a hell of a lot more data than any lone computer user can. Actual imbalances of digital and social power vanish in a sea of Davos eyewash once the mantra of transparency is duly chanted. In short: Transparency without reciprocity is no virtue.
So, it was well and good for Schmidt to remind his audience at the New America Foundation that Google has been pushing for the FISA Court and the NSA to be more open and transparent about all the domestic spying they allow and perpetrate. Mostly, Google wants to show the world how often the government demands or sucks information from the company. Google has for years boasted of its “openness” about the ways governments around the world push the company to spy on its users. The company is not interested in making a stand on anything but procedure, or to advance anything more than the procedural social good of transparency.
In other words, neither Schmidt nor Google, despite all the political power they hold, is willing to “pass judgment” on the most audacious mass infringement on American civil liberties in 40 years. For someone who ran a company devoted to re-engineering knowledge, social relations, and the ways we navigate the world, Schmidt remains starkly committed to the status quo—or, as they’re given to call such things in the Davosplex, “the nature of our society.”