Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, reiterated the tech industry’s call for greater transparency from the US government over surveillance on Friday, but declined to “pass judgment” on American spying operations.
Speaking in New York, at an event hosted by the New America Foundation, Schmidt said it was time for a public debate about the nature of the surveillance activities carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA). But he also said that spying was a fact of modern life.
“There’s been spying for years, there’s been surveillance for years, and so forth, I’m not going to pass judgement on that, it’s the nature of our society,” he said.
With the other major technology companies, Google has been pressing the US government to be more open about the surveillance orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is also known as the Fisa court. He pointed out that Google has filed legal briefs to force the Fisa court to disclose more information.
Schmidt said his comments were based on the presumption that documents disclosed by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were “roughly accurate”. Among the revelations from those documents were that the NSA operates a program called Prism, which internal agency documents claimed offered “direct access” to the servers of big tech firms including Google. Schmidt repeated the company’s denial of this characterisation.
But he said it was legitimate to have a debate about how the NSA carried out its surveillance. He said: “We all have to look at ourselves and say: ‘Is this what we want?'”
Schmidt, who has been at Google since 2001, was speaking to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president of the New America Foundation, in a discussion. Schmidt said he believed most Americans were in favor of the NSA working to protect US citizens, but were also in favor of protections against government misuse of their data. He also expressed concern that the publicity surrounding Snowden’s disclosures would lead to the internet becoming less global, as individual countries attempted to enact greater protections for their citizens.
“The real danger [from] the publicity about all of this is that other countries will begin to put very serious encryption â€“ we use the term ‘balkanization’ in general â€“ 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. 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.”
Schmidt also spoke about innovation and the impact of new technologies on US society, dismissing criticisms by observers such as Evgeny Morozov, the Belarusian author of The Net Delusion, who are skeptical of claims that the internet will lead to greater democratization.
“He is a unique critic in that he is the only one making those arguments,” Schmidt said, though he later added the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, to the list.