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22 March 2013

Google Chairman Schmidt urges tech-fuelled development and free speech in Myanmar

Photo: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt (Official Leweb Photos\flickr).

When Eric Schmidt talks, the world listens. One of the most prominent tech executives of the past decade, he transformed Google from a successful start-up into one of the world’s most influential companies during his 10-year tenure as the company’s de-facto CEO. Having relinquished his day-to-day role running the company in 2011, Schmidt has become Google’s international ambassador of sorts, spreading a message of openness and connectivity to the frontiers of the global Internet.

Schmidt came to Yangon on March 22 to discuss the challenges and prospects of information technology development in Myanmar with young “future leaders” – activists, entrepreneurs and engineers – before jetting off to Naypyidaw in the afternoon for talks with government officials. His appearance in Myanmar is the latest in a recent run of visits to emerging markets, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most prominently, he paid a controversial visit to North Korea in January in an attempt to convince its leaders of the benefits of entering the information age.

In many respects, Myanmar’s ICT infrastructure is hardly better than North Korea’s. According to a February 2013 report by the Open Technology Fund, less than 1% of Myanmar’s population has access to the Internet, the second-lowest penetration level in the world after East Timor. Only 2% of Myanmar’s population owned a cell phone in 2011 according to the International Telecommunications Union – a lower rate than even North Korea.

By addressing the challenges facing the development of the ICT sector in Myanmar, Schmidt showed his stripes as a true believer in the power of the Internet to change societies and lives for the better. “Your government has made an incredibly important decision to open up the country to foreign ideas, to the Internet, to your own newspapers,” he told the crowd. “These are exciting developments. But there’s one more thing. The Internet will make it impossible to go back.”

Schmidt highlighted how the Internet promotes democratic accountability, so long as it is unfettered and easily accessible. “Try to keep the government out of regulating the Internet,” he told the audience to rapturous applause. “Every government I know only wants nice things on the Internet. Every politician I know only wants nice praise [about them] on the Internet.” He underscored the power of the Internet to promote transparent and accountable governance, but warned that governments should resist the temptation to crack down on free speech. “Some things citizens will say on the Internet will be critical, and you [politicians] will have to get over this. The answer to bad speech is more speech. You get a much better idea of what all your citizens care about,” he said.

Schmidt is expected to have discussed issues of Internet freedom in closed-door meetings in Naypyidaw after his address in Yangon. This kind of informal diplomacy is a crucial part of Schmidt’s forays into “unwired” societies like Myanmar and North Korea. Analysts believe that his dialogue with North Korean leaders prompted its notoriously reclusive leaders to allow foreigners to use mobile Internet earlier this year.

While Myanmar’s Internet is now largely uncensored, the country’s skeletal infrastructure leaves it vulnerable to blackouts. All Internet traffic in or out of Myanmar runs through one fibre optic cable, making it easy for information flows in and out to be stopped either by accident or deliberately. A study by web security firm Renesys ranked Myanmar’s risk of Internet disconnection as “high,” as the country’s entire access must pass through only one international frontier. Syria, which received an equally low score from Renesys, suffered a complete Internet shutdown in December 2012, as the embattled Assad regime sought to keep information about the ongoing civil war from leaking out.

It would be essentially impossible for governments in countries like Sweden, the Netherlands or the United States to shut down the Internet entirely, according to Renesys, as these countries have 40 or more international gateways to handle outbound Internet traffic. Schmidt stressed that private-sector investment is the only way to build a functional and resilient ICT backbone to help alleviate these concerns. “The government has to make it possible for the private sector to build [Myanmar’s] telecommunications infrastructure,” he said, claiming that state-run telecommunications monopolies are inefficient, hinder the adoption of information technology, and make it too easy for governments to control information. He also noted that language – as well as cost – acts as a barrier to Internet adoption. “Today, the internet here is largely in English, and is used largely by the elite… because prices are too high,” he noted. “We have to get prices down, which occurs via competition, [a]nd we need to get cheaper phones on the market.”

“I predict that if you do that right [liberalisation], the most profitable industries in Myanmar will be in the telecommunications sector,” he elaborated. The profitability of the ICT sector is will bring with it social benefits, he claimed, in areas like rural poverty reduction and education. He cited the examples of a US NGO distributing thousands of tablet computers in Ethiopia, which has shown promise as an efficient way of educating underserved communities, and M-Pesa, an SMS-based money-transfer system originating in Kenya that has allowed for cashless transfers to become commonplace across East Africa, providing people without access to the formal banking system with a way to save money.

Extending credit to impoverished rural communities is a primary focus of the development agencies that have returned to Myanmar since President U Thein Sein took office in 2011. A new product launched in late 2012 by Safaricom, the service provider behind M-Pesa, allows users to earn interest on virtual deposits in the same manner they would with a traditional bank account. By allowing customers to access credit without ever having to step into a physical bank, mobile technologies can help develop the kind of small-scale enterprise necessary for poverty alleviation and economic growth.

Optimistic as ever, Schmidt promised that Myanmar should look forward to riding “the most exciting rocketship you’ve ever been on” as the changes brought about by ICT development come into effect. While information technology can be a driver of economic growth in its own right – witness the rise of Google, Silicon Valley and the information economy in the United States – the benefits of ICT will bring about net gains for practically every sector of Myanmar’s economy, according to Schmidt, and this development will allow Myanmar’s development process to race ahead at lightning speed. “You will all have an opportunity to skip all the previous generations of technology,” he prophesised. “[Y]ou will literally leapfrog 20 years of difficult-to-maintain infrastructure and go straight to the most modern architecture.” For the people of Myanmar, who remain isolated as the world becomes ever more interconnected, this change can’t come quickly enough.

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