Government & Politics

What Is the Relationship Between Technology and Democracy?

Condoleezza Rice and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen discuss communication technologies, foreign policy, and geopolitics.

March 26, 2014

| by Michael Freedman



Eric Schmidt, left, Condoleezza Rice, and Jared Cohen | Braulio Amado

What is the relationship between technology and democracy? In March, former U.S. Secretary of State and Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Condoleezza Rice sat down at the school with Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen to discuss their book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, which explores communication technologies, foreign policy, and geopolitics. Schmidt is executive chairman at Google, where Cohen is the director of Google Ideas. Here are excerpts from their discussion:

Condoleezza Rice: You’ve said that this is a book about technology. But more importantly, it’s a book about human beings. What prompted you to write this book, and what prompted the two of you to write this book together?

Jared Cohen: Eric and I met in Baghdad in 2009. He wanted to see what it was like traveling in to a war zone and whether technology was relevant at all. After the trip to Iraq, we traveled to more than 40 countries, looking at the ways in which technology is disrupting autocracies, ways that it’s changing the nature of violence on the ground, and what we realized is there’s an inherent connection between the Silicon Valley world and the geopolitical world that’s really missing.

Eric Schmidt: I’d like you to think about a Secretary of State. Imagine if you’d had a technology arm that could implement technology that would actually fix a problem that was bedeviling you, censorship, communications, empowering citizens, empowering women? Something that was on your mind, and yet all you had were the tools of foreign policy.

It just seems like, in our industry, we should define ourselves with a somewhat higher purpose. Why doesn’t our industry, the tech industry, figure out a way to solve these problems? I was struck by the horrific situation that most people are in the world, which was of governance, the horrific way in which women are treated, the corruption at every level of government.

So the real genesis of the book was, “Why don’t we not only identify what’s going to happen to them, but also what the bridges are?” After two years of going through this, we ultimately come out in the book, I would claim, with a pretty optimistic message.

The well-to-do world is going to be fantastic in terms of fiber optics, computation, and so forth, and we can talk about that. But for the developing world, we have no connectivity at all.

The arrival of the smartphone is a life-changing event because from this single device, you saw the literacy, you saw the empowerment, you get better governance, and these are folks who don’t even have electric power and running water.

You solve their business problem, their health problem. All of their needs can be met, and over the next five years, another three or four billion people will join us.

Rice: Let me throw out a few country names, and tell me how you think technology will impact those countries, and the problems that they present for foreign policy? You went to one of the … maybe the hardest case that I can think of, North Korea. What in the world were you doing in North Korea?

Schmidt: They have a million cell phones, 22 million people. It’s a very poor country with horrific, horrific governance, obviously, and maybe if we could just get them to just turn on a little bit about that Internet, we could begin to open up the country.

It’s a country where there’s only one decision-maker, and the only way that country will open up without a revolution, which is difficult, is if the leader decides that the country needs the information more than it needs the conflict that new ideas will bring.

I think what we concluded was that all you have to do is to insert doubt. North Korea is a true autocratic state […] essentially it’s the last one. They really do believe from birth that their leader is god, king, religion, and so forth. All we have to do is get a little doubt in, and that country will fall over.

Cohen: If you think back to the days of the Cold War, their totalitarian societies, cults of personality, etc., in the future you’re still going to have autocracies, you’re still going to have horrible societies. But the one silver lining in all of this is, the totalitarian societies — the true cults of personality — have literally been eliminated by the Internet in the same way that scientists were able to get rid of smallpox. Once North Korea changes, you’ll never see a cult of personality again, because the ability to create a society without doubt will no longer be possible.

Rice: You also have regimes that are more integrated into the international system but are doing terrible things to their people. For instance, let’s take the suffering in Syria at this point. Is there anything that technology can do for the Syrian refugee, for instance?

Cohen: I was just on the Syrian border about three weeks ago, and I went to a number of refugee camps in northeastern Lebanon. And it turns out one of the biggest problems that the refugees have, among many, is dealing with the refugee organization bureaucracy. It’s so bad, and so difficult to get papers, that refugees are literally going back to Syria to get documentation.

The Syria context basically creates a bug in our technological optimism because you have literally thousands of videos that are coming out of Syria, each one more horrific than the next. And it’s doing nothing to increase political will on the part of states to intervene. At the end of the day, without a state-led intervention of some kind, the horror is not going to stop.

I heard some horrible stories from Syrian friends of mine that I hadn’t seen since I was living there in 2004 and 2005 about government checkpoints where they stop you, and they ask for your phone. They hold a gun to your head and ask for your login information. They then look at what’s been posted on your wall by you or somebody else.

My friend told me that when their brother did this, they saw someone had posted a page sympathetic to the revolution on one of his social networking platforms, and a signal came from the checkpoint to the top of the building, where they then shot him in the head.

Technology can’t fix that problem. This is a brutal regime doing terrible things, and I think it’s important that we understand we’re far away from it out here, that there are limits. It’s a part of the solution, but at the end of the day states are still the dominant unit in the international system, and they’re the ones that have to take charge of the situation.

Schmidt: We all start from the premise that you empower individuals, and the thing that’s new here is the empowerment of citizens around the world. We’ve never had a situation where people were so empowered. And it’s all sorts of good, and mostly good, but some bad things as well. So where does it break down?

Well, in the first place, in these countries they shut down the Internet because they’re in a war, and so that’s always a bad deal. But, ultimately, knowledge and awareness is not the same thing as shooting guns. So if you’re going to know everything, which is a reasonable presumption of the future, we’re going to know every massacre. We’re going to know the horrors. You’re going to still have to have some way of stopping it.

Now you can do it with an international [cry-out]. In the book, we write that you could in fact begin the criminal trial of the war criminals during the time they’re doing the war. And there’s evidence that this kind of awareness is reducing the number of people being killed. So a cynical way of talking about Ukraine is to say that only 78 people were killed in the square, and they got a new government. And obviously every death is bad, but you could imagine that would have been 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000. So awareness and knowledge probably reduces the number of deaths, and it probably constrains the misbehavior of these despots within reason, but it doesn’t stop the killing. That’s the question I have for our foreign policy. Is there any solution to that problem aside from the traditional foreign policy?


Rice: You’re still confronted with the question of “What will those consequences be?” so technology has in some sense put more pressure on governments to actually act in circumstances in which they actually have very few levers to pull. And I think we’re seeing that in Ukraine today, probably because you see on television people tweet, they send out Facebook posts, they are showing what is happening in that square.

When Czechoslovakia was invaded in 1968 by the Soviet Union we didn’t know what was going on, on the ground. The television cameras couldn’t get in. I was a little girl in Birmingham, Alabama. I remember it pretty well, but you couldn’t really tell what was going on. Now you know exactly what’s going on, but you still have to act. There’s more pressure because you know, and still the tools are not there.

Schmidt: The question I keep asking is, what’s new? We’ve always had despots, we’ve always had bad people, we’ve always had good people, we’ve always had governments. We believe as a group, I think naively, that if you just empower the people with these tools democracy flourishes. And in the book we take you through what happens when you empower people.

When we were in Myanmar (Burma), we were in this place called Inle Lake, and it’s beyond beautiful. And some number of kilometers north of us there was a terrible fight between the Buddhists and the Muslims. They have a lot of religious tensions in the country, which I was not aware of. A whole bunch of houses are burned, people are killed.

I naively assumed that the Internet had been used as a calming mechanism. They had just gotten the Internet, people could talk to each other, they could see that there’s bad, they could help stop it. In fact, it was the inverse, that the Internet was used to inflame tensions on both sides to get them, “They did this, they did that” and so forth, not unlike the radio stuff that occurred in Rwanda, which we also visited.

So it looks like technology can be used for both good and bad. And Jared made the point that if you’re an early-stage society, you may not be able to really critically think about this new information, so I call this a danger zone.

In the book, we talk about this, that in these emerging countries what happens is all of a sudden, all of this connectivity happens, everybody is empowered, and God knows what’s going to happen because they’ve not grown up with doubt, with choices, with different voices, and with an ability to choose among those with some critical thinking.

Rice: And they’ve not grown up with institutions that can mediate between differing opinions, which leads me to probably the biggest question out there in terms of the international system, and the role of technology, and democratization, and the like: China.

Schmidt: Well, Jared and I were, in November, in a weekend meeting with the president and the prime minister of China with all the mayors, talking about their accomplishments, and we were among the Americans that were visiting.

And it was remarkable to see the way they present themselves. It’s a country of leaders who are engineers, analytic, numerical. They spoke with enormous pride of the lifting of people out of abject poverty to what we think of as lower middle class. They understand the middle-income trap. They’re growing at 7.5 percent, and so forth. It’s a perfect image that they portray — and good for them. They really have accomplished some amazing things.

These are the same people who criminalized speech above 5,000 people by a blogger, that if you activate more than 5,000 people in some way, you can literally be arrested and shot. And of course in China everyone has 5,000 followers, so it’s just because of the scale. So it really is a chilling effect.

How do you rationalize those two? Well, one is that American firms are not welcome unless they’re useful to China, so many of the social networks are blocked. But there are two things that are interesting about China that have emerged recently. WaveO, which is essentially a Twitter-ish replacement, and WeChat, which today you’d know as essentially a WhatsApp replacement.

What’s interesting about these is that they’re much more than what I described. They are the ways in which people communicate online, and they are heavily censored under these very, very arbitrary censorship laws. People are in them all the time. I came away with a sense that the Chinese government has finally met its match. That if you start talking through WeChat, which is a way of talking to your friends, but they’re linked together, and then eventually it spreads … and eventually a new idea gets to 10 million people; there’s not enough prisons and jails to arrest all those people.

So we concluded, and it was very clear in talking to the Chinese government that they are at least aware of this possibility on the Internet, and they’re worried about the Internet being used to disturb the social order.

Rice: And the Chinese are an example of legitimacy based on prosperity, and the question with prosperity is, you keep chasing it, it gets harder and harder because people’s expectations keep going up, but I wonder about the role of the technology, the Internet information, just information.

So for example, pollution in China, environmental degradation is a hot political topic in China, and people can walk outside of their apartments, or wherever, and they know they can’t breathe in Shanghai or Chengdu, or whatever. And for a long time the government was giving a pollution index number that clearly didn’t bear any resemblance to reality. The U.S. Embassy started publishing a number or putting a number up, but there’s also now apparently an app that you can buy that will measure the pollutants. So just the provision of information challenges the monopoly on information that an authoritarian government depends on for control and acquiescence. Do you agree with that?

Cohen: And in China this is going to be a particular challenge. Lots of people like to make the argument that China has a very sophisticated censorship apparatus, but in reality China is about to go through an experiment that no other country in history will ever go through, and it will happen just one time, which is a billion people are going to come online in one country in the span of a decade. And you have to ask yourself the question, “Who are they?” They are largely rural, often in the western province. They have no visibility into what’s going on in the various urban environments in China.

The reason this is game-changing is the grievance of one city has the potential to scale to a grievance across all cities. It’s that visibility into other Chinese communities’ problems and challenges and grievances. So the challenge of these complaints, and these frustrations scaling, even the Chinese themselves have no idea what that looks like. It’s a huge wild card for them.

The other thing that they’re doing, just to do everything they can to hedge their monopoly on information, is, they’re literally trying to build spheres of cyber-influence by building out the technological infrastructure of other countries. And because they have a blurry line between public and private sectors, it’s their own form of foreign assistance that no other country seems to be able to compete with.

Rice: One of the most controversial issues that we face here in the United States, where we do have strong democratic institutions, has been the question about privacy technology, security, the fight against terrorism, and the like that has been the subject of the discussion about the role of surveillance, the role of NSA, the [Edward] Snowdens, the Bradley Mannings of the world. How do we think about the impact of those events on how governments may view technology, how citizens may view it, and the relationship between the two?

Schmidt: I worry about governments collecting large amounts of data on their citizens, and not for the reasons that all of the civil libertarians in the room think. I worry because those large databases will be leaked because one of the other things that’s new is the ability to do this large-scale bulk data leaking. It used to be, if you look at the previous leaks, that they were essentially limited at the rate by which you could make Xerox copies of things. But it appears now that it’s possible to steal 1.5 plus or minus million documents with a little bit of work, from Hawaii, and then put that around the world. This is really a new problem.

Governments naturally collect data on their citizens. Your phone knows exactly where you are because the e-911 services are required by law to record where you are. Now, thank goodness that information has not been leaked. But the fact of the matter is, the databases exist. I’m not particularly sure we want that stuff leaked, generally available, and so forth, let alone subpoenaed, used in courts, and so forth.

Now, we debated this Snowden case at some length. Traditional foreign policy people, and people, especially on the East Coast are very, very negative on Snowden. The West Coast tends to be more, shall we say, positive, and the view of Snowden appears to have changed over the year to be somewhat more positive from an initial very negative view.

But the fact of the matter is I just don’t think we want to encourage bulk data leaking, even if it had a good purpose. Who appointed [Julian] Assange or Mr. Snowden to be the person who made that decision? It’s not a good way to run your society.

So in the book we basically say, “There’s got to be some other way to deal with government misbehavior,” and so forth. But the other thing we say very clearly, and indeed in the current issues around the NSA surveillance, “I’m happy that we know that the government was doing this.” I think in democracies you should roughly know what the government is doing. It’s not really a good idea for them to be collecting all this information because somebody else will leak some other part of it.

Rice: Of course, it’s not just a problem with government. Lots of people collect data on you. I would dare say Amazon probably knows more about you than the U.S. government, and they care more because the NSA actually doesn’t care what you said to your grandmother. Amazon does because you might buy something that you discussed with your grandmother.

So sometimes I think we have to recognize that one of the problems — your point about bulk data leaking is an important one — but democracy is always right at the edge of chaos. It’s a disruptive system where people can say anything. It’s a disruptive system where we’re always overthrowing governments peacefully, and we depend on institutions to moderate and mediate those disruptions.

And if individual citizens are deciding rather than the institutions of government — in the case of the United States there are three separate co-equal branches of government — then you’ve got a chaotic environment, and I think that is part of the problem with the Snowden …

Cohen: Well … then also you add the celebrity factor to this. That, to me, if you look at the progression of leakers in the past, and then Manning, and then Snowden — these people are becoming more famous over time, and as we talked about backstage, it lends itself toward copycatting. And I think your point about this not just being a government issue is also important. What happens the day that somebody at a major law firm in the United States decides to bulk-leak a bunch of information? What are the consequences of that?

And then there’s another issue about what all this means for the future of the intelligence community. One of my mentors is Frank Carlucci, who used to be deputy director of the CIA, among other things. He said to me, what must have been 10 years ago, that the challenge the CIA has is it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep a secret. And that was a decade ago.

So the intelligence community has a real challenge that it has to overcome, which is how it continues to do its good work in an era in which, more and more, there’s a risk of things getting leaked. And I don’t know the answer to that question.

Condoleezza Rice is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at Stanford GSB. From January 2005-2009, Rice served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States. Eric Schmidt is executive chairman of Google, where he served as chief executive officer from 2001 to 2011. Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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