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Google's Eric Schmidt downplays NSA spying

Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt says he was worried that the NSA spying scandal could "split" the Internet.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, left, stands with Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the recent opening of the Flextronics factory in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Moto X is being assembled.
Eric Mack/CNET

If you thought that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt would take a more strident tone when discussing the National Security Agency spying scandal, think again.

"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," he told New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter at a public event in New York.

But Schmidt's biggest concern about the spying wasn't that the privacy of individuals had been violated, or that companies like Google were being forced to give the government access to their customers' data, the Guardian reported.

"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," he said just before saying that government spying is not new.

Still, Schmidt reiterated his company's effort to get the US government to be more transparent about surveillance orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including its recent lawsuit to reach that goal.

Schmidt brushed off criticism of ideas in the book that he recently co-authored with Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, "The New Digital Age." Some, such as Evgeny Morozov, the Belarusian author of "The Net Delusion," have been skeptical of Schmidt's claims that the Internet will help create a more democratic world.

"He is a unique critic in that he is the only one making those arguments," Schmidt said, but later contradicted himself and mentioned Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as another critic.

Schmidt has chaired the board that runs the New America Foundation since 2008. The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank is funded by both private individuals and public groups, including the US government.