Eric Schmidt, in new book: China could contribute to fracturing the Internet into pieces

February 3, 2013

(li xin/AFP/Getty Images)

Google CEO Eric Schmidt's new book, co-authored with a former State Department superstar named Jared Cohen, doesn't come out until April. But The Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara got a hold of an advance copy and has been going through some of its ideas about the future of the Web. Particularly interesting are Schmidt's comments on China, which, according to Gara's reading, seem to portray the country as a rising threat not just to Web freedom but to the Internet itself.

Schmidt and Cohen write that China is the world's "most sophisticated and prolific" hacker, according to Gara. Their book reads, ”It’s fair to say we’re already living in an age of state-led cyber war, even if most of us aren’t aware of it.” But their predictions for where that might lead the Internet, according to the Journal's report, include the dark possibility that it could split apart entirely.

China's willingness to use aggressive, sophisticated hacking to get ahead, Schmidt seems to argue, will grant the country and its state-linked firms a significant advantage in the global economy. He also argues that states and corporations, partially in response to this trend, may start to cooperate more closely. It's not clear whether Schmidt sees the distinction between cyber corporate espionage and cyber warfare as strengthening or fading, but he says both will play a major role in the Internet's future.

In this thinking, the differences between how China and the West treat the Internet would continue to diverge. For China and similar states, a desire to control the flow of information ever more tightly could eventually lead them to develop a separate physical infrastructure.

Perhaps Schmidt and Cohen are thinking here of the local-access-only "Internet" they saw on visiting North Korea recently, where users can only access a controlled intranet with thousands of hand-picked Web sites. In their book, they suggest that we may one day see a handful of states like North Korea join an "autocratic cyber union, where censorship and monitoring strategies and technologies could be shared."

Ultimately, Schmidt and Cohen even foresee the possibility of the world's countries deliberately breaking the Internet into several distinct Internets. According to Gara's reading of the book, the authors "speculate that the Internet could eventually fracture into pieces, some controlled by an alliance of states that are relatively tolerant and free, and others by groupings that want their citizens to take part in a less rowdy and open online life." It's not clear if Schmidt and Cohen also see this as a way for countries such as the United States to better insulate themselves from hacking.

Organizations in China, and perhaps the Chinese state itself, do seem to write their own rules when it comes to operating online. Last week, many of the U.S.'s largest newspapers revealed that they had discovered sophisticated, powerful cyber attacks against their systems that had originated in China. Some analysts have suggested that the attacks, which did not appear to be motivated by financial gain, may have been in response to negative reporting on the Chinese government.

Google has had a tough history with China. In 2010, the Web company abandoned its Beijing-based operation, which had required working perhaps a little more closely with the Chinese government than Google found acceptable. Shortly after decamping its servers to Hong Kong, Google.com mysteriously went dark in China for about 10 hours, possibly because it had been blocked. This November, Google went out in China again, this time along with all subdomains and services. One Web monitor estimated that the outage, which appeared to be a result of a Chinese government block, affected more users than any Web blackout in history.

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