The Internet will vanish, says Google’s Eric Schmidt

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Davos bosses fret over threats to internet free trade.

Davos: Business leaders pushing for frictionless free trade have something new to worry about: the potential break-up of the internet, which today forms the backbone of the global economy.

The issue is a hot topic at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, and the forum is seeking to provide a platform for debate over ways to maintain an open, cross-border web in the face of pressures for national regulation. “Is fragmentation happening? Quite frankly, there is a temptation,” said Vittorio Colao, chief executive of mobile telecoms group Vodafone, who pointed to different regulatory regimes as an impediment to network traffic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room,” he continued. “A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.” On mobile, Schmidt is less certain. “All bets are off … as to what the smartphone app infrastructure is going to look like,” he said. “I view that as a completely open market at this point.” The panel, which included Schmidt, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Vodafone chief Vittorio Colao, was led by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who extolled the importance of an expanding global Web presence. The executive chairman of Google used the words “the Internet will disappear” when asked for his predictions Thursday, and that statement — unusual and provocative when taken out of context — lead just about every story on the tech side of the WEF gathering in Davos, Switzerland.

A growing volume of business relies on the internet, from tourism to financial services, and the web has empowered firms, especially smaller ones, to find customers in foreign markets which would otherwise be out of reach. With 5 billion people around the world still without Internet access, “the only way this changes is if it gets cheaper,” Sandberg said, as reported by The New York Times. A 2014 report by the Boston Consulting Group estimated the internet economy will be worth $4.2 trillion in the G20 economies by 2016 and, if it were a country, it would rank in the world’s top five, ahead of Germany. Facebook and Google are both taking steps to bring more people online: The social network continues to broaden its service, while Google’s Project Loon is moving into new locations. Yet, the internet’s interconnected nature has come under attack from interests ranging from governments to corporate brands decrying copyright abuses or fearing cyber attacks such as those at Sony.

Seeking to fill these breaches, national governments, courts and regulators are pressing for local controls that could “Balkanise”— or fragment — the network. Mayer took a slightly less drastic approach, telling the audience that “You need to have transparency but you also need to afford the individual choice and control.”

Schmidt is using “disappear” in the sense of “become so ubiquitous that you won’t even notice it.” And in one sense, he’s right — we are going to see billions more smart devices coming online over the next decade. But that may not change as many things as Schmidt suggests — or bring us into a seamless world where we don’t ever think of being online or offline. Worryingly for business, Boston Consulting estimated that economic growth was slower than it might have been in countries with limitations on online activity, and the difference could amount to 2.5% of gross domestic product. “People should be concerned,” said John Drzik, head of global risk at insurance broker Marsh. “National solutions won’t protect the interests of global companies.” One media industry chief executive, who declined to be identified, said the issue needed much more attention in the boardroom: “Business needs to be mobilised on this issue in the same way as it is mobilised for free trade pacts.” A closed-door meeting held in Davos on Thursday drew together government officials, executives from a mix of industries and internet technical groups to discuss governance topics. Company bosses appear to agree that informal moves are not up to that task of keeping the internet open, but that neither is a UN-style top-down approach.

Their best hope seems to be to lend support to the decentralised network of existing technical and policy forums such as the domain-name overseer ICANN, to address hot topics such as security and privacy. When Samsung’s CEO attempted to answer this question at CES earlier this month, he came up with four examples: You walk through your front door, and the music that was playing on your smartphone’s headphones switches to your smart speakers. Fadi Chehade, CEO of ICANN, said: “If we do not strengthen trust in the integrity of how the internet is governed then, quite frankly, someone will do it for us, and that is likely to be government.”

Oh, yes, and when you walk into an auditorium like the one in which he was speaking, the CEO suggested, your smart seat knows to automatically start heating your butt. I don’t know about you, but I like that I have to take my headphones off and stop the music when I walk through the front door — it’s a natural pause, a chance to switch gears, to connect with my wife. That’s the problem with any Internet of Things discussion: As soon as you start talking about what happens when we walk into that highly connected room of which Schmidt spoke, you realize that our needs are utterly granular, dependent on the weather or our mood or personal preference or any one of a hundred quirky human factors.

As Google’s executive chairman, part of Schmidt’s job is to travel the world, and make grand pronouncements; Google’s own executive bio page describes him as a “thought leader.” That’s nice, but it would be even nicer if he spent less time making for misleading headlines, and more time offering specifics.

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