Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power
The advent and power of connection technologies -- tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another -- will make the twenty-first century all about surprises. Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority. For the media, reporting will increasingly become a collaborative enterprise between traditional news organizations and the quickly growing number of citizen journalists. And technology companies will find themselves outsmarted by their competition and surprised by consumers who have little loyalty and no patience.
Today, more than 50 percent of the world's population has access to some combination of cell phones (five billion users) and the Internet (two billion). These people communicate within and across borders, forming virtual communities that empower citizens at the expense of governments. New intermediaries make it possible to develop and distribute content across old boundaries, lowering barriers to entry. Whereas the traditional press is called the fourth estate, this space might be called the "interconnected estate" -- a place where any person with access to the Internet, regardless of living standard or nationality, is given a voice and the power to effect change.
For the world's most powerful states, the rise of the interconnected estate will create new opportunities for growth and development, as well as huge challenges to established ways of governing. Connection technologies will carve out spaces for democracy as well as autocracy and empower individuals for both good and ill. States will vie to control the impact of technologies on their political and economic power.
Some countries, primarily major connected powers such as
Dealing with this dilemma will pose particular challenges for democratic nations that share common principles of openness and freedom. Their ideals will clash with well-founded concerns about national security. In order to avoid yielding the advantage to countries such as
Democratic governments will most likely be tempted to further their national interests through the same combination of defense, diplomacy, and development on which they relied during the Cold War and the decades after. But these traditional tools will not be enough: although it remains uncertain exactly how the spread of technology will change governance, it is clear that old solutions will not work in this new era. Governments will have to build new alliances that reflect the rise in citizen power and the changing nature of the state.
Those alliances will have to go far beyond government-to-government contacts, to embrace civic society, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. Democratic states must recognize that their citizens' use of technology may be a more effective vehicle to promote the values of freedom, equality, and human rights globally than government-led initiatives. The hardware and software created by private companies in free markets are proving more useful to citizens abroad than state-sponsored assistance or diplomacy.
Although it is true that governments and the private sector will continue to wield the most power, any attempts to tackle the political and economic challenges posed by connection technologies will fail without the deep involvement of the other rising powers in this space -- namely, nongovernmental organizations and activists. The real action in the interconnected estate can be found in cramped offices in
The idea of technology empowering citizens for good or for ill is not a new phenomenon, nor is there a lack of precedents of governments dealing with how to react to this phenomenon. The arrival of the printing press in the fifteenth century is an interesting case in point. Although
In the twentieth century, with the advent of radio and television, nations -- and those wealthy or powerful enough to gain access to the airwaves -- could control and even dictate much of what was heard and seen. Radio and television proved to be powerful propaganda tools for states that knew what to do with them.
Despite these limits, many people chose to watch and listen to information broadcast through independent sources, which had previously been unavailable to the masses. These listeners and viewers included many who worked in governments -- often putting themselves at significant risk of getting caught, losing their livelihood, or worse. A similar phenomenon is occurring today in places such as
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 illustrates the shift from broadcast media to another set of communications tools. To be sure, huge social forces were at work in
The U.S. government was wary of the power of the cassette tape in
In the decade that followed, technology helped achieve another significant step in reducing the power of intermediaries and in short-circuiting regimes bent on silencing opposition voices. Activists and human rights campaigners in the
Today, people are far more likely to complain about having to sort through too much information than to have none at all. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this change lies in the wealth of platforms that allow individuals to consume, distribute, and create their own content without government control.
This does not mean that intermediaries have suddenly become irrelevant, of course. Companies that provide access to the Internet or software applications are critical for exchanging information, and governments or state-owned companies retain the power to block access. But this power is diminishing, because not even governments can stop, control, or spy on all sources of information all the time. Meanwhile, the involvement of diaspora communities in bringing change to their homelands has vastly increased, creating new sources of financial support and international pressure. And an entire cottage industry has emerged with the goal of finding and creating holes in porous firewalls.
The combination of these new technologies and the desire for greater freedom is already changing politics in some of the world's most unlikely places. In
Yet for all the inspiring stories and moments of hope abetted by the use of connection technologies, the potential of such technologies to be manipulated or used in dangerous ways should not be underestimated. The world's most repressive regimes and violent transnational groups -- from al Qaeda and the Mexican drug cartels to the Mafia and the Taliban -- are effectively using technology to bring on new recruits, terrify local populations, and threaten democratic institutions. The Mexican drug cartels, in order to illustrate the consequences of opposition, spread graphic videos showing decapitations of those who cooperate with law enforcement, and al Qaeda and its affiliates have created viral videos showing the killings of foreigners held hostage in
The same encryption technologies used by dissidents and activists to hide their private communications and personal data from the state are used by would-be terrorists and criminals. As relatively inexpensive encryption technology continues to proliferate on the commercial market, there is little doubt that autocrats and hackers will make use of it, too. Finding the balance between protecting dissidents and enabling criminals will be difficult at best.
At the same time, the Taliban have become increasingly savvy about using mobile technology to malicious and deadly effect. Taliban militants have used cell phones to coordinate attacks, threaten local populations, and hold local businesses hostage, either by blowing up cell towers or by forcing them to power down
Realists describe international relations as anarchic and dominated by self-interested states. Although there is little doubt about the dominant role states will and should play in the world, there is a great deal of debate about exactly how dominant they will be going forward. In these pages in 2008,
Not all governments will manage the turbulence left in the wake of declining state authority in the same way. Much remains uncertain, of course, but it seems clear that free-market and democratic governments will be the best suited to manage and cope with this maelstrom. The greatest danger to the Internet among these countries -- perhaps best defined as the members of the
Perhaps no country has more carefully considered the implications of allowing its citizens access to connection technologies than
But thanks to the work of activists and nongovernmental organizations operating inside and outside
The intersection of connection technologies and state power is also playing out in the other bric nations:
The acceptance, or lack thereof, of connection technologies can also vary within the governments of democracies.
International observers should also keep their eyes on a small group of hyperconnected states --
States in the developing world -- grouped here as "partially connected" nations -- face a different set of opportunities and challenges in incorporating connection technologies. The stakes are especially high for those with weak or failed central governments, underdeveloped economies, populations that are disproportionately young and unemployed, and cultures that lend themselves to opposition and dissent, and also for those contending with outside pressures from large and engaged diasporas living in technologically advanced nations. The sudden influx of connection technologies into these societies will threaten the status quo, leaving fragile governments in potentially unstable positions.
On the bright side, the spread of technology in partially connected nations such as
In some partially connected countries, such as Côte d'Ivoire,
As technology continues to spread, many governments in partially connected societies are seeing more costs than benefits. This is particularly true for those that struggle to maintain their political legitimacy. Anything that questions the status quo, the party in power, or the façade of stability poses a threat. For such governments -- including the autocratic, the corrupt, and the unstable -- the potential of quick and unexpected mini-rebellions is particularly worrisome. In many cases, the only thing holding the opposition back is the lack of organizational and communications tools, which connection technologies threaten to provide cheaply and widely.
Over the last several years, regimes that carried out ham-handed crackdowns have grown more subtle and sophisticated. The actions of the Iranian government surrounding the country's 2009 elections are a case in point. In the weeks leading up to the vote,
Whether or not partially connected countries follow the Iranian example may depend on the balance between internal political stability and the need for economic growth. Those nations faced with the task of restarting or maintaining stagnant or slowly growing economies are more likely to allow their citizens and businesses to adopt new technologies and to maintain the free flow of information that is vital to foreign investment. TECHNOLOGY, ON THE EDGE
A second and equally large group of developing countries are the "connecting nations" -- places where technological development is still nascent and where both governments and citizens are testing out tools and their potential impact. In these states, connection technologies are not yet sufficiently prevalent to present major opportunities or challenges. Although these states will invariably rise into the ranks of the partially connected, it is too early to determine what this will mean for the relationship among citizens, their governments, and neighboring nations.
Some of these states, such as
An even larger group of these connecting states can be called "open by default" -- that is, states that are, in principle, open to the import and use of connection technologies but whose governments might periodically introduce restrictive controls, whether fueled by a paranoid elite class, bureaucratic corruption, perceived security threats, or other factors. These countries, which are found across
Finally, there is a small but globally significant group of nations -- the so-called failed states -- that are characterized by chaos and an inability to act consistently even on the most important issues. Such states are natural havens for criminal groups and terrorist networks that may have local grievances but harbor regional and global ambitions.
Efforts by democratic governments to foster freedom and opportunity will be far stronger if they recognize the vital role technology can play in enabling their citizens to promote these values -- and that technology is overwhelmingly provided by the private sector.
Companies whose products or services revolve around information technology -- be they producers of cell-phone handsets, manufacturers of routers that are the building blocks of firewalls, or providers of Internet platforms -- deal in a commodity that is inherently political. In the interactive world of Web 2.0, the prime mission of some of the technology sector's fastest-growing corporations is to provide cross-border connections. Little wonder that the old-guard officials who dominate repressive regimes see these companies as little more than the arms dealers of the information age. That said, although
The nonprofit sector and individual activists around the globe also face new opportunities. In the interconnected estate, they will continue to shape government and corporate behavior by promoting freedom of expression and by protecting citizens from threatening governments. But at times, they will have to adjust their tactics to reflect the new environment in which they operate. This means, among other things, ensuring that efforts to expose wrongdoing do not strengthen governments apt to make nationalistic appeals; working behind the scenes when that route will produce better, faster results; and using the technology that the private sector creates for their own ends. A Web site called Herdict, for example, collects data on blocked sites in real time, creating a public log of disruptions to the free flow of online information and enabling an unprecedented level of user-generated transparency.
For both companies and the nonprofit sector, the interconnected estate provides a place where they can join together in new alliances to multiply their impact. One example is the Global Network Initiative, an organization that brings together information technology companies, human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics in an effort to promote free expression online and protect privacy. (
Continuous innovation -- and the increasing population of the interconnected estate -- will pose new, difficult challenges for people and governments the world over. Even the best-informed and most active users of technology will find themselves caught in a blur of new devices and services. In an era when the power of the individual and the group grows daily, those governments that ride the technological wave will clearly be best positioned to assert their influence and bring others into their orbits. And those that do not will find themselves at odds with their citizens.
Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies. This is not to suggest that connection technologies are going to transform the world alone. But they offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world who are abused by their governments or barred from voicing their opinions.
Faced with these opportunities, democratic governments have an obligation to join together while also respecting the power of the private and nonprofit sectors to bring about change. They must listen to those on the frontlines and recognize that their citizens' use of technology can be an effective vehicle to promote the values of freedom, equality, and human rights globally. In a new age of shared power, no one can make progress alone.
ERIC SCHMIDT is Chair and CEO of Google. He is a Member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and Chair of the New America Foundation. JARED COHEN is Director of Google Ideas. He is an Adjunct Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
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