The heavy use of the Internet and social media to organise Arab Spring protests could cause some nations to crack down hard on Internet freedom, said Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt was speaking at a conference in Ireland on Monday, where he said that some governments want to regulate the Internet in the manner that TV is regulated. “In most of these countries, television is highly regulated because the leaders, partial dictators, half dictators or whatever you want to call them understand the power of television imagery to keep their citizenry in some bucket,” he said.
“I think this problem is going to get worse,” Schmidt told the Google organised summit on militant violence.
Schmidt also warned that his colleagues faced an increasing risk of arrest and torture in repressive countries for using the Internet to launch demonstrations and oppose the government.
For instance, during the Egyptian revolution, Egyptian authorities detained Google executive Wael Ghonim after taking part in the protests that led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim had been involved in founding an anti-torture Facebook page that helped inspire demonstrations.
During the uprising, Google launched a service to help Egyptians use Twitter despite Internet restrictions by dialling a telephone number and leaving a voice mail that would then be sent on to the online service.
Arab Spring protestors made heavy use of social networking websites, especially Facebook, to organise demonstrations and communicate with people outside their country. State controlled media was often restricted by the government, leaving the Internet as the only open source of information.
Although Schmidt would not name the countries he hinted could introduce censorship of the Internet, he was obviously referring to countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and also China. Google has banged heads with China over its attempted censorship of the Internet and the fact that Chinese hackers are believed to be behind security breaches of hundreds of American websites.
Google’s friction with China resurfaced this month when it said it had broken up an effort to steal the passwords of hundreds of Google email account holders, including US government officials, Chinese human rights advocates and journalists.
It said the attacks appeared to come from China, although stopped short of alleging official involvement. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials angrily rejected any China link, saying they were as much a victim as anyone else of hacking and cyber attacks.