Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman and chief political hobnobber, recently led a delegation to Cuba to promote “open” Internet access in the repressive communist state. With only about 20 percent of Cubans able to access the Internet, Havana could use the encouragement, but Google is a less-than-ideal ambassador for Internet freedom. Schmidt may talk a good game abroad, but at home, he’s been a willing and active partner in crime for a government that is pursuing unprecedented Internet regulation.
Cuba is the very picture of a state that actively and aggressively regulates the Internet. The Castro regime forbids free Internet access, limiting web service to government facilities, foreign-owned businesses, and tourist hotels. The minority of Cubans who are able to connect to the web are limited to state-controlled websites that scrub away any information from the outside world. Havana’s web restrictions have been resoundingly effective in maintaining control of the media, suppressing dissent, and limiting the Cuban people’s ability to organize.
The motives behind Cuba’s Internet regulation are clearly more sinister than those behind American proposals to limit web freedom, but the island stands as an example of what can happen when progressive, paternalistic Internet policies are taken to the extreme. If Google were truly concerned with promoting global Internet freedom, it wouldn’t be trying to limit that freedom in the country that has led the digital revolution.
Google has been one of the Obama administration’s most prominent and powerful corporate allies in its ongoing attempts to impose network neutrality on America. The ultimate goal of net neutrality is to govern the internet as a public utility and restrict the ability of Internet service providers to offer different speed and bandwidth packages to different customers. This would mark the end of over 20 years of Internet growth largely unimpeded by the government, and present the dawn of a new era of federal regulation of the web. In effect, these policies aim to impose a tightly-governed regime that would seriously limit innovation and entrepreneurship, treating the internet no differently than stagnant public utilities, like landline telephone service.
If achieved in its full form, net neutrality regulations would slow Internet speeds across the board by creating federally regulated tiers of service. This rigidity of this system could make life more difficult for startups, and protect established corporations from competition. And few corporations would stand to benefit from net neutrality more than Google, which would be locked into its position atop the market by laws limiting its competitors’ ability to access bandwidth.
Google is also uniquely positioned to influence the Obama White House’s Internet policy agenda, as the corporation’s brass were among the president’s most essential campaign donors, providing him with specialized prototype voter outreach software not available to the public. Schmidt, as the president’s informal technology adviser, has been perhaps Obama’s closest confidante in the corporate world, and several other high-ranking Google officials have left Mountain View for White House jobs that put them in position to shape Internet policy.
Laudable as Google’s global agenda for Internet freedom may be, its priorities shift dramatically at the border, and whatever altruism the corporation feels toward the Cuban people is lost domestically. Google appears to be actively calling in the favors that the White House owes it, and has no qualms about forcing restrictive policies on the masses to solidify control of the web.