Google's Vision: No Censorship, No Privacy, No Problem
Google's chief Internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Image source: The White House.
"I believe there's a real chance that we can eliminate censorship and the possibility of censorship in a decade," saysGoogle's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.
"It will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy," says Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist and one of the inventors of the global networks we use today. "Privacy may be an anomaly."
Tim Berners-Lee, who came up with the Web-browsing platform on top of Cerf's data networks, agrees with Schmidt's and Cerf's views on increasingly open information flows -- but thinks the trend isn't moving fast enough. "Everybody owes a lot to whistleblowers" like Edward Snowden and the Wikileaks crew," he says. When "our system for checks and balances breaks down, we must protect and respect them."
All three of these quotes come from speeches and interviews given in the past week. They all hark back to this well-traveled Stewart Brand declaration, vintage 1984: "Information wants to be free."
Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, exhorting the U.K. government to code a better country. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
That simple statement raises hackles everywhere, for a variety of reasons. Google's stated mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." That ultimate goal almost has to assume that information wants to be free, that people need it to be so, and that placing restrictions on the gathering of universal data is, in a word, evil.
If you agree with Google's implied philosophy here, you probably think that free (as in speech, not necessarily as in beer) information is a beautiful thing. Brand's aphorism gives you goosebumps of the good kind.
In this light, these Schmidt, Berners-Lee, and Cerf quotes look like a call to arms. Censorship is a dead concept walking, and so is privacy. There's no way back to the dark ages, so you might as well get over the lack of privacy and focus on the inherent goodness of total awareness instead.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Image source: Google.
And of course, not everyone agrees. Your neck hairs might stand on end in horror over the coming loss of privacy. Never mind the benefits of complete (and forced!) honesty. Even a simple little change like requiring YouTube comments to be tied into the real-name identification of the Google+ system is too much, raising a firestorm of protests and complaints.
So what does it all mean? I think we're looking at this simple matrix of possible outcomes:
Give Me Privacy or Give Me Death!
Privacy Is Already Dead -- Give Me More Data!
Total freedom of information is inevitable
Information may want to be free, but it won't work out that way
In the end, I find it difficult to argue against the open future that these three visionaries are predicting. Technology is forcing censors to retreat everywhere. In America, Snowden and Wikileaks' Julian Assange play their whistleblower parts to great effect. Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in many of the Arab Spring revolutions, helping the threatened and the oppressed to voice their concerns to a listening world. Google's YouTube service also helped the revolutionaries spread their message on a global scale, in just a couple of clicks. Even China's Great Firewall must eventually break down and allow ordinary Chinese to communicate with the outside world -- even if the government doesn't like that idea at all.
So I suppose it's good for me that I fall in the rightmost column of the preceding table. I believe that having more information is a universal good. My favorite amendment concerns itself with freedom of speech. The remix culture produces plenty of valid art, in my opinion. This article was written using nothing but free software.
Will I miss the last traces of online privacy when it's gone? Sure. But then, I'm already over-sharing on Twitter and Facebook. My work is not just seen by my manager or editor, but by by thousands of readers every day. You bet I get stage fright in front on my video camera. Privacy is already dead to me, and it dies just a little bit more every day.
And I think that's a totally fair trade-off. I own Google shares because I believe in the company's radically open philosophy, and these quotes -- two of which come from actual Google employees -- only underscore how central that mission statement really is. If Google doesn't get to organize and present all the world's public information, then I want to own the company that reaches that lofty ideal.
I'm sure this article will make me some friends and even more enemies. Either way, share your thoughts in the comments box below or flood my inbox with angry flames. Again, that's totally OK. Google's brain trust would approve.
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