Google's Eric Schmidt: Technology May Create a New Digital Divide

NEWS ANALYSIS: Google's Eric Schmidt says that technology is creating a "privileged few" who have access to information, and millions of users around the world who don't.

HANNOVER, Germany €” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt addressed this year's CeBIT theme of "managing trust" by pointing out that you can only manage trust in technology for people who have access to it. In a speech delivered during the March 7 opening ceremonies of CeBIT, Schmidt speculated about how good the Web might be if all 5 billion people on this planet had access to it. Leaving aside that the actual population of the planet is nearly 7 billion people (according to Google), Schmidt said that the biggest challenge his company and the people who use information have is that so relatively few people have free access to information.

Schmidt said in his talk that more than 40 nations restrict or censor the Internet and other outside information available to their citizens. But he also said that mobile technology is overcoming those limitations. To illustrate this, Schmidt related the spread of the news surrounding a high-speed train crash in China. The government suppressed the news, but it spread through people using smartphones, and as a result, the government was held up to public ridicule.

"You don't need a central hub with a smartphone," said Schmidt. "They can communicate directly with each other."

However, Schmidt noted that without a huge growth in the means of communication, the vast majority of the world's population cannot have free access to information. The problem, he said, was that access to technology and the means to use it has created what Schmidt called a "privileged few" who can have the best networks, the best computers and the knowledge to use the best search and information-gathering technology.

The access to this technology meant that national borders were effectively eliminated, said Schmidt. People, he said, could do business or have friends anywhere, and with such things as automated translation, language need not be a barrier. The problem, Schmidt noted, is that most of the world cannot afford even limited access to such riches of information.

Schmidt noted that most of the people in the world are too economically disadvantaged to even consider having Internet access of any kind, and he said that this limits them even further, threatening to consign them to falling ever farther behind the privileged few. Schmidt said that there could be solutions to these problems, but said that it would require innovation to accomplish that. He noted that even nomadic tribes have and use satellite dishes. "Why not smartphones?" He noted that just because most smartphones require a cell service connected to the outside world, it doesn't have to be that way. Smartphones can be made to communicate effectively with each other, he said.

Schmidt said that while technology can be a great leveler, we must avoid a digital caste system. "We can create a global system of equals," he said.

Schmidt is correct, of course.

The world is already divided between the technology haves and everyone else. The technology haves own iPhones or BlackBerry devices, and they have tablet computers and high-speed Internet access everywhere they go. The have-nots don't have these things. Because the have-nots don't have this access, they are put at an economic disadvantage in virtually every part of their lives. For example, how do you apply for a job if the applications are all online? How do you even look for one if the job listings are all online?

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...