Schmidt: The Web will dissolve national barriers

The Web isn't just making it easier for Americans to read German newspapers. It's laying the foundations for a global culture, Google's executive chairman says.

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Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at the CeBIT opening ceremonies.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at the CeBIT opening ceremonies. Stephen Shankland

HANOVER, Germany--Google Executive Chairman is hopping from country to country on a European tour, but he said today the Internet is breaking down those national barriers.

"Loyalty is not just to a nation but to friends and interests," Schmidt said in a speech at the opening ceremony of the CeBIT technology show here today. "That will change everything for citizens, states, and society."

That may cause indigestion for any number of customs agents, tax collectors, and politicians, but it fits right in with Schmidt's optimistic view of the world: "It's a wonderful, wonderful thing to think about," he said.

The cross-border linking isn't just a glorified pen-pal movement. It's the foundation of a global culture, he said.

"I've always believed the Web is more than a network of machines. It's a network of minds that's evolving into a global conscience," Schmidt said. "The Web unites all of us in sentiment and action."

Google -- whose mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" -- has a strong interest in seeing that more global culture emerge. Google's search thrives on cross-linked Web pages, and it has competitive advantage over rivals that lack its global scale and built-in translation services.

But the company also has a principled stance rare among corporations. That stance makes Google a target when people see its behavior as violating its "don't be evil" tenet, but it also lets Schmidt criticize governments Google sees as backward.

"Technology does not produce miracles, but connectivity -- even modest amounts -- changes lives," Schmidt said. "Propaganda will be harder to sell to the public."

One case in point: Chinese citizens ridiculed the Chinese government when it tried to suppress news of a high-speed train crash last year. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's "brutality" is on digital display "for everyone to see," Schmidt said.

"In times of war or suffering, it will be impossible to ignore the images that come out," he said. "It will be far easier for communities to mobilize against autocratic regimes."

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaking at CeBIT's opening ceremonies.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaking at CeBIT's opening ceremonies. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Part of that communication will come via mobile phones that connect to each other with mesh networks, he said. "Smartphones don't need to talk to a central hub. They can talk to each other," bypassing governmental mechanisms to control information.

"Forty countries today engage in online censorship," up from four a decade ago. "I think we'll see more, but they'll fail. The Internet and technology are like water: they'll find a way through."

Schmidt's talk was something of a stump speech; he delivered the same message a week ago at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This time, though, he had two heads of state in the audience: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Merkel and Rousseff had speeches of their own. Merkel, in the throes of a financial crisis that's rippling across a Europe interconnected by a common currency, called for her own version of international links.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at CeBIT's opening ceremonies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at CeBIT's opening ceremonies. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"As Europeans, we have to be careful to make sure we spend enough time to be less parochial than we are," she said. "We have to make this a very stable zone and make sure the proper precautions are taken...We in Germany are every much aware this is also in our own interest."

Rousseff touted Brazil's economic stability -- a relatively new phenomenon -- and technical growth among its population of 190 million.

"In 2011, Brazil was the world's third-largest market for PCs and the world's fifth-largest market for mobile phones," she said. "Sixty-one million Brazilians have access to the Internet, and that market is expanding." In 2011, Brazil doubled mobile broadband usage to 41 million subscribers and saw paid TV services reaching 21 million homes, a 30 percent increase.

The country is building fiber-optic links that "will cover half of our population," she said. "In May we will launch a tender for [radio spectrum] bands required to deploy 4G mobile phones in Brazil." Also linking the country up will be an undersea fiber-optic network linking Brazil to North America, Europe, Africa, and other South American countries.