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Google's Schmidt predicts end of censorship within a decade

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt smiles during a rehearsal of his MacTaggart lecture speech for the Edinburgh International Television Festival
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt smiles during a rehearsal of his MacTaggart lecture speech for the Edinburgh International Television Festival

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Google Inc Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has a bold prediction: Censorship around the world could end in a decade, and better use of encryption will help people overcome government surveillance.

In a lecture at Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday, the executive of the world's biggest web search company made a pitch for ending censorship in China and other countries with restricted freedom of speech by connecting everyone to the Internet and protecting their communication from spying.

"First they try to block you; second, they try to infiltrate you; and third, you win. I really think that's how it works. Because the power is shifted," he said.

"I believe there's a real chance that we can eliminate censorship and the possibility of censorship in a decade."

Schmidt has long spoken out against limitations to the freedom of expression and restricted Internet access around the world. Earlier this year, he traveled to North Korea, a country disconnected from the rest of the world, to promote the cause.

"It's clear that we failed. But we'll try again. We have not been invited back," he said of the personal trip, the timing of which was later criticized by the U.S. State Department as being not helpful because it came shortly after North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket.

The goal for North Korea, Schmidt said, was not democracy for now but to merely get the people to connect with the rest of the world: "My view is that if we can get some connectivity, then they'll begin to open the country, they'll begin to understand other systems."

On the home front, too, Google is now one of several tech companies embroiled in the controversy over the reach of U.S. government spying. Top secret documents disclosed by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden have suggested the National Security Agency has tapped Google's and others' communications links to aid in its gathering of intelligence.

Schmidt at the time said that the NSA's activity, if true, was outrageous and potentially illegal.

Google, at which Schmidt served as CEO until 2011, has faced its own criticism for intercepting data over the years. The company acknowledged in 2010 that a fleet of cars it operates to map the world's streets had mistakenly collected passwords and other personal data from home consumers' wireless networks over a two year-period.

Earlier this week, Google agreed to pay $17 million to settle a probe by 37 U.S. states that it bypassed privacy settings on the iPhone's Web browser and tracked Web users.

"The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everyone," Schmidt said on Wednesday, referring to the process of encoding data to secure it.

He acknowledged that encryption can be broken and said Snowden's revelations showed the NSA has indeed done it, but added: "With sufficiently long keys and changing the keys all the time, it turns out it's very, very difficult for the interloper of any kind to go in and do that."

Google has recently increased the length and complexity of its encryption keys, Schmidt said, calling it a constant "game of cat and mouse" between the governments and Internet users.

"It's pretty clear to me that government surveillance and the way in which governments are doing this will be here to stay in some form, because it's how the citizens will express themselves, and the governments will want to know what they're doing," Schmidt said.

"In that race, I think the censors will lose, and I think that people would be empowered."

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Ken Wills)

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