Privacy not in Eric Schmidt's vision of the future

Other speakers at the Cebit opening ceremony emphasized personal data protection

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt painted a messianic picture of our technological future on Monday, involving holographic telepresence, self-driving cars, automatic translation and the widespread deployment of 1Gbps Internet access over optical fiber, bringing transnational peace and communication to all.

Schmidt was speaking at the opening ceremony of the Cebit trade show in Hanover, Germany, the theme of which this year is "managing trust."

However, Schmidt said nothing about privacy, the area where users of Google's services in Germany and elsewhere in Europe seem to be most concerned about the trust they can afford to place in the Internet giant. Last week Google introduced a new privacy policy despite calls from European data protection authorities to wait while they completed an investigation of the company's privacy practices.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned on Monday night that cloud computing services such as those offered by Google are not without their dangers.

"The more you take them for granted, like electricity from a wall outlet, the more important it is that you can rely on them," she said, concluding the opening ceremony.

When people store their personal data in the cloud, she said, "We must make sure that the data is not used by anybody else."

David McAllister, the premier of the German state of Lower Saxony where the show takes place, was more direct in his warnings.

"As the Internet makes further inroads into the spheres of business, administration and government, the issue of security and trust in the digital world is becoming more important and of increasing interest," he said before Schmidt spoke. "However enthusiastic we might be about the potential of the Internet and social media as a platform for information and communication, this should never be at the expense of personal privacy or copyright laws."

And Dieter Kempf, president of the German association for the high-tech industry, Bitkom, had more advice for Schmidt:

"Signs of trust including the protection of data privacy, safety and transparency are by far the most important criteria" when buying goods and services online, he said. "Without confidence there can be no online shopping, no cloud computing."

Schmidt followed Kempf and dismissed the matter of trust in technology summarily, saying that for us to trust it, the technology must exist in the first place.

He had more to say about what technology will bring us, including optical fiber connections delivering 1Gbps Internet access in almost every city by 2020; driverless cars able to navigate Germany's autobahns at high speed, and the ability to rent holographic telepresence devices to visit the places those cars cannot take us.

Such pleasures will likely be reserved for those with a deep knowledge of IT, in Europe or the U.S., or perhaps the "connected contributors," those who have access to technology and understand how to use it but not how it works, said Schmidt.

But there is still another category of potential customers, the 5 billion people not yet online. They will skip dial-up or broadband connections and go straight to mobile, said Schmidt.

Even modest amounts of Internet connectivity for such people will change lives, said Schmidt.

"There will be elites, but they won't have a monopoly on progress. The weak will be made strong, and those who have nothing will have something," he said, gathering pace.

But a digital divide will continue to exist and, if anything, "The gap between the top and bottom will be larger than today," he said.

Nevertheless, he concluded, "We can create a connected world of equals," leaving a look of surprised incomprehension on the face of some of his listeners.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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