Nobody was exactly sure what Eric Schmidt was doing in North Korea before he left, and now that he's back things aren't much clearer.
After observing computer labs and meeting with officials in Pyongyang, Schmidt, former United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson and the rest of the "Google Delegation" stepped off the plane in Beijing with some pretty commanding things to say about how North Korea--which maintains its own walled-off, dystopian pocket internet--should be dealing with the digital divide, starting with the message that the country needs to get on the Internet already.
"As the world becomes increasingly connected, [North Korea's] decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically," Schmidt, wearing a lilac-colored sweater, told reporters. "[Censorship will] make it harder for them to catch up economically. We made that alternative very, very clear."
Preaching censorship is pretty rich when it's on behalf of a company with a fairly consistent track record of complying with Internet-censoring governments. According to its November "Transparency Report," Google reported that government requests to censor content on its sites had risen 89% year-on-year, driven largely by requests by the Turkish government to remove anti-government YouTube videos (it complied with 45% of those particular requests). Google also said it received 20,938 government requests for user data in the first half of 2012, up 35% from a year prior, most of them from the United States. Of the 7,969 user data requests in the most recent six-month period, Google complied with 90% of them--some of which likely related to the emails of former CIA Director David Petraeus and his closest gchat buddies.
Not included in those numbers are copyright-related takedowns. While Google's been a staunch critic of pro-Hollywood actions like SOPA, it's also built a sprawling system for complying with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and managing takedown requests--at ever rising rates and with restrictions in excess of the law. Last year, the company was removing 1.1 million URLs a month from its searches, effectively wiping those sites off the public web.
Similar concerns animated the FTC's recent investigation into Google's monopolistic behavior, and while it couldn't find evidence that Google had scrubbed its results of competitors' sites, the investigation appeared to go easy on the GOOG. (Aside from some changes to how it treats competitors, as John Seabrook notes, the company walked away with the sole warning that it must be able to come up with a plausible explanation for how its behavior benefits customers.) The trimming of search results and content by companies like Google and Facebook isn't always political, but, clandestine or not, it is still a form of censorship.
Video from Al Jazeera: "We strongly urged the government to increase their use of the internet," said former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.
It's also fitting that Schmidt gave his speech about Internet freedom in China, where, after years of tensions and diplomatic rows, Google has lately been bending to the country's censorship rules. Last week, the company quietly backtracked on its "once unshakeable anti-censorship stance," Wired wrote, after it stopped telling users if their searches were being censored. Why would they do that? Well, censorship or not, the Chinese market is the biggest in the world, and Google's not interested in controlling only five percent of it.
However closely connected Google's business interests are with its political ambitions, those ambitions can be noble. Everybody expected Schmidt would play the censorship card on his trip to the dictatorship, which the Google executive chairman actually described as "a private visit to North Korea to talk about the free and open Internet." In a talk in 2010 at the Council on Foreign Relations, Schmidt showed his political hand: instead of antagonizing the North Korean government, he argued, it's better to "infiltrate, for lack of a better word," using connective technologies. "It's much cheaper to invade a country with fax machines than with guns," he said.
But noble democratic ambitions can also run aground, and afoul of UN-certified diplomatic interests. Schmidt's getting involved in other topics like nuclear proliferation are according to the State Department, not "particularly helpful."
Schmidt checks out a 3D film in Pyongyang
The trend isn't new. As companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter pursue global domination, armed with teams of lobbyists and helped by close ties to public officials (Google employees contributed heavily to the Obama campaign), they haven't been afraid to flex their political and economic muscles (which are augmented, of course, by offshore tax havens, which Google exploits to save billions in taxes.) And no matter how reviled they may be, and antitrust investigations aside, their promises of free WiFi and clean energy and flu maps--or political freedoms and diplomacy--can be hard to resist. Philanthropy is one thing, but when big corporations start playing the role of governments, the question remains: whose interests will they be serving, and what will we have to say about it?
The more immediate question--what Schmidt was doing while ostensibly making himself diplomat for the four days he was in and around Pyongyang--is a head-scratcher. It's unclear who actually benefited from Google's little adventure into unknown. Schmidt and co. didn't manage to meet with Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old Korean-American tourist who was detained late last year and has been charged with unspecified crimes against the state. Pyongyang, which invited Schmidt back for future chats, is probably confused about whether or not it just met with American officials, especially since Richardson used to be one of our highest ranking diplomats. And last month, Schmidt was rumored to be in the running for an Obama cabinet position.
The State Department remains miffed that American corporations are meeting with the enemy. And Google, no matter its interest in persuading Pyongyang to get with the global program, is probably already thinking about Google North Korea. It wouldn't be a surprise to me if Schmidt really tested his diplomatic mettle: by trying to persuade Kim Jong-Un to join Google+.
Image via Flickr