The Internet -- and, not incidentally, Google -- is a friend to democracy, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the keynote gathering of the Personal Democracy Forum here in New York on Friday morning.
"I expect technology will have a significant effect on the '08 election," Schmidt told the gathering. "The Internet is the best way of delivering sound bites ever invented." He was pitching the converted, since this gathering of political junkies includes workers in campaigns of all sizes who want to use digital tools for their various causes. (The event is sponsored by Google)
Schmidt acknowledged that the Internet in particular is a great leveller in campaigns. He expects it will enhance fact-checking, as bloggers, Web video postings and Web forums hold politicians accountable for things they said (or didn't say, and claimed to have said).
"The only question is whether it will be done by you or to you," he noted. Schmidt pointed to the experience of U.S. senate candidate George Allen, caught on camera making a slur that was widely Webcast.
On the downside, it's not just politicians who should expect public scrutiny. Schmidt says a digital society is learning two key lessons: "People can be falsely charged and be innocent," and we'll all have to learn to "live with a historical record." Those MySpace and Facebook pages can come back to haunt young job-seekers. (Both Schmidt and interviewer Thomas Friedman of the New York Times acknowledged they were just as glad camera phones weren't ubiquitous when they were in college.) Also, Snopes has a healthy future debunking those urban myths that can spread so rapidly and earnestly online.
Schmidt also noted several times that technology has an effect in nondemocratic societies. Even a dictator or a monarch has some concern about PR. "The Internet makes it essentially impossible to shut down the kind of communications" typically controlled in a nondemocratic state. When Thailand blocked access to YouTube entries showing the king in April this year--because showing images of the monarch was prohibited--many of the Thai people objected to the ban. Schmidt said an eventual compromise permits a handful of videos.
He fielded a few softball questions about how Google deals with the variety of political systems -- many of them not democratic -- in international markets. "As a part of our entry to the country, we have to be subject to their media laws, which are quite broad," he said, acknowledging "the Great Firewall" of China as an extreme example. But when a Chinese Google-user is refused access to some search results, they learn of the block.
"You have to believe the arrival of broad access to information has to be good for the evolution of the eventual democratic state" in any market--and even the knowledge of blocked information raises interest, he added.
Neither did he discuss much of Google's issues managing YouTube, but noted the company is working through a complicated system of copyright management with professional media organizations. Google wanted YouTube because "video is one of the of the keystone components of the Web," he said.
And, he reminded the political operatives in the audience, it's a way of distributing highly specific information to a small or large community very quickly. As for the U.S. military's recent decision to block access to YouTube (and other sites), Schmidt mildly observed that "We would prefer that they not." Not very democratic, and lousy PR.