The internet has an ever-growing role to play in allowing free expression across the globe, but only if attempts to reign it in are unsuccessful, according to Google chairman and chief executive Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, speaking in Washington, DC, warned his audience that the internet will continue to create public policy challenges as its second billion users move online in the coming years. One reaction to a perceived loss of privacy and to new internet users questioning repressive governments will be to clamp down on information, he said.
"[That approach] appeals to people who prize order over everything else," said Schmidt, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's launch of a global think tank. "Those people exist everywhere."
Schmidt acknowledged that a completely free flow of information over the internet can be messy, but an unfettered internet gives people the best information, he said. "The internet has empowered people in a way we've never seen before," Schmidt said. "What we say at Google is, 'don't bet against the internet'."
In the coming years, governments will have to deal with a series of questions as more people come online, he said.
The second billion internet users will often compare the way their countries govern with other governments, he predicted. "They're going to see their government has been treating them badly," he said. "They're going to be annoyed."
Some governments will struggle with how much free expression is too much, he said. Even in Western democracies such as France and Germany, posting information about the Nazi Party is prohibited, Schmidt said, and other governments will struggle with what expression to allow.
Schmidt said he hopes governments will err on the side of freedom, but free expression will continue to be a hot debate in coming years. "Have we gained more freedom than we want?" he said. "Freedom of choice may be more choice than people want."
And with computers able to store more and more information, governments will struggle with the idea of privacy, he added. Many people will eventually regret rants or photos put online 20 or 30 years earlier.
"What happens to personal privacy when everything that's created exists forever?" Schmidt said. "My daughter calls this, 'too much sharing in your early life'."
The internet creates paradoxes, he said. It creates a global marketplace, but it also allows people to segment themselves into tribes, he said. It allows the truth to emerge faster than with other mediums, but it also allows users to spread false information. "If you don't like a piece of information, spread some information," he said of the attitude of many internet users. "People here wouldn't do that."
When he heard groans from the Washington crowd, Schmidt amended his statement. "I should say, people in this room wouldn't do that," he said.
Despite the policy questions, Schmidt encouraged the audience to work for ways to open information up to more people across the globe. "Globalisation is fundamentally about universal access to information," he said. "This information revolution that's coming can be shaped."