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Fmr. Google CEO says internet could split in two into China-led and US-led versions

Eric Schmidt, then-Executive Chairman, Google (left) in conversation with Nik Gowing. (Chatham House/Flickr)
September 25, 2018

A former Google chief made a surprising prediction about the internet last week – that the world wide web could be split in two.

Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc. and former CEO of its subsidiary Google, remarked at a private event that the internet could become fragmented into two separate entities divided between the United States and China, CNBC reported last week.

Schmidt made the comments at a private gathering in San Francisco hosted by technology investment group, Village Global VC, which partners with billionaires like Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and more.

Economist Tyler Cowen raised the idea to event attendees on the potential of two distinct internets, each with their own levels of regulations and access. “What’s the chance, say, 10 to 15 years, we have just three to four separate internets?” he asked.

“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America,” Schmidt said.

He noted the “phenomenal” rate of expansion, growth of services, and wealth undergoing creation in China. “Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number,” he said.

“If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point,” Schmidt noted. “Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.”

Schmidt then implied that countries could begin to follow China’s model of expansion.

“Look at the way BRI works – their Belt and Road Initiative, which involves 60-ish countries – it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom,” he said.

The BRI refers to China’s initiative to expand trade with dozens of global powers to increase their influence in the political and economic spheres.

Schmidt’s comments follow recent reports that current Google CEO Sundar Pichai held talks with Chinese officials on developing a censored version of Google compatible with Chinese internet regulations.

It isn’t the first time Schmidt spoke out on Google’s fast-growing technological capabilities. Last year, he warned that China would soon overtake the U.S. in artificial intelligence. “By 2020 they will have caught up. By 2025 they will be better than us. And by 2030 they will dominate the industries of AI. Just stop for a sec. The [Chinese] government said that,” he said at the time, according to Business Insider.

China also released tan AI strategy in July 2017, which set forth its goals to become a world leader in technology by 2030.