Why is Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, in North Korea, the world’s least internet free country?
Schmidt flew a commercial flight Monday to Pyongyang with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Richardson’s motives are fairly clear and has made several trips to the country already.
Though Washington hates it, the North Koreans love this kind of independent visit – ex-US president Bill Clinton made a similar private humanitarian trip in 2009 – as it makes it look like Pyongyang are engaging with the outside world and things are progressing when of course nothing of the sort is happening at all.
For Schmidt the trip could have many roots. It could just be part of Google’s general reframing of its position on free expression in Asia. Before Christmas, Google quietly disconnected a feature that told Chinese users if a word they were Googling was blocked by Chinese censorship.
China is also getting stricter on identifying individuals online, which is bad news for dissidents but if you want to be cynical, would be good news for a company that has a market model based around real names linked to real interests and real locations.
So the aim may be to make Google more relevant to China in North Korea, a country whose nuclear-tipped transition they have a real interest in managing. Burma made its changes without reference to Beijing, which they didn’t like but tolerated. North Korea is infinitely more significant to them though.
Is this good? More connectivity is always good, even if only as cover for dissidents who can hack the system and hide themselves in the internet. China is moving away from direct censorship to more systematic surveillance – it’s not so much they want to stop opinion, they want to stop people organising around it – and this is another big issue for Google and its telecoms ambitions in Asia.
“These new mandates send a chilling message to China’s netizens,” says Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch. “The (Chinese) government’s decision is an effort to silence critics and curb anonymity online by further conscripting internet companies to monitor and censor users.” In China, but also in Burma and one day, in North Korea.
But and but, it’s also self-evidently a business opportunity. Pre-changes Burma had negligible mobile phone penetration and the junta there has ambitions to go from three percent teledensity to 50 percent by 2015. Everyone in Burma wants a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, to trade, save travel and seek work and when North Korea does open up, so will its embattled citizens.
You’ve got to assume that Samsung will rule such a scenario – the South Korean giant has already invested substantially in cheap labour semi-conductor workshops over the border, but they are pointedly breaking up with Google and Android.
Maybe Schmidt has his eye on wooing them back before the wall comes down. Or maybe he’s just going to see. Even if you know you are only going to look at fake Potemkin hotels and party members stuffed with carbs for the occasion, it would be a invite hard to resist, just to take a look at the world’s weirdest, saddest state. I’d go.
And you never know where it’s going to lead to. I was in Baghdad in 2009 when the US flew Twitter’s Jack Dorsey into Iraq behind a battalion of Blackwater mercenaries to see what social media could do for that benighted place. Dorsey billed it as way to assess the country’s online culture, and we all said (basically) WTF?
And he learnt nothing of value as far as we could tell, but of course we all found out a year later, social media and the Arab World was where the story was, even if you couldn’t see it then.