Google CEO: Techies must educate governments

Tensions between privacy and ready access to data lace visions for 2016 tech by Eric Schmidt and Microsoft VP Rick Rashid.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
WASHINGTON--Those in the know about technology must spend more time reaching out to governments and helping them understand the Internet's role in society, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said Tuesday.

"The average person in government is not of the age of people who are using all this stuff," Schmidt said at a public symposium here hosted by the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. "There is a generational gap, and it's very, very real."

Of particular importance on the policy front are Net neutrality--the idea that network operators should not generally be allowed to prioritize content that travels over their pipes, or the "revenge of the Bell companies," as Schmidt put it--and digital copyright law. Online-service providers like Google that routinely grapple with complaints about copyrighted content on their properties are adequately protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), but any future changes in that area "could significantly change the way the Web works," he said.

Schmidt said he also doesn't expect arguments over the proper balance between individual privacy rights and government intrusion to die down anytime soon. "There's not a single and simple answer," he said.

The Google chief's half-hour talk capped a daylong series of lectures focusing on how aspects of computer science and telecommunications will look in 2016. Standing beside the podium, his right elbow propped casually on its edge, Schmidt wore a dark jacket and slacks and no tie, and he appeared to be speaking largely without a script.

His speech meandered from his memories of the mainframe age to the growing importance of targeted advertising as a business model to his personal belief, which he mentioned more than once, that the so-called convergence of media will not ultimately result in consumers using "one box that has everything."

"It's clear the number of devices and things we're going to use are going to be very different," he said. He would, however, like to see a world in which he can access the same content on each device, via a single log-in name and password, and have everything be "completely seamless."

One topic that scarcely came up, however, was Google's announcement last week of a $1.65 billion deal for online video-sharing dominator YouTube. Asked by CNET News.com after his speech whether the planned acquisition presented any copyright concerns, Schmidt said he had nothing more to say about the transaction--which he noted has not yet closed--saying only that the company operates under the DMCA and "went into this with our eyes open."

Earlier in the afternoon, Microsoft Senior Vice President for Research Rick Rashid spoke of a future fueled by the rise of "human-scale storage." Translation: Since nearly anyone should be able to afford terabytes of disk space by 2016--even today, one can purchase that capacity for less than $500--new possibilities arise for documenting the world around you.

Viewed another way, it's enough to make a privacy hawk's skin crawl--and Rashid acknowledged that those tensions will always exist. "But the reality is, we will be able to do it," he said.

And there are good reasons why people may want to activate what amounts to a "black box" for humans, he said. He pointed to a study by British researchers showing that the use of such devices (in particular, Microsoft Research's SenseCam) by people with memory loss problems has helped them retain information about past events.

"They can keep their life," he said. And more broadly, people "can go back and say, I really want to get that conversation with my father who passed away, I want to get that time back when my 25-year-old first crawled."