Eric Schmidt described his first five years at Google as "pure, naive techno-optimism," in that the company believed that applying American values like free speech is good for the world. But Google hit a brick wall when it bought YouTube.
"We learned the lesson that you cannot go and impose your American values on countries, even if you don't like it," Schmidt said at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel Tuesday. "And then we face this question of: Do you stay or leave?"
Schmidt, former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter and IBM SVP and director of Research Darío Gil talked about tech's role on a global stage at a panel moderated by former POLITICO Magazine editor Garrett Graff. They said the war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and other worldwide issues have tested tech's ability to expand on a global scale.
Schmidt said a decade ago, tech companies likely would not have taken down false information about COVID-19. But when the pandemic began to spread and platforms began removing false information about the virus, companies set a precedent for taking down content — but without rules to guide it. "Now we're in this horrific state where we've set the precedent that we're willing to edit or change the textbook, change the content, but we don't have any rules," he said.
He said the U.S. lacks a government playbook for addressing misinformation. He cited the U.K.'s Online Safety Bill, which proposes a framework for removing harmful (but legal) information. "That's an example of how Britain, which is certainly a democracy, is going to solve this problem. Who knows what harmful but legal harmful is? How do you decide?" Schmidt said.
Panelists also talked about tech's response to the war in Ukraine. Slaughter, currently the CEO of New America, said the implications of tech companies cutting ties with Russia is "enormous." Slaughter said tech companies are starting to act as "independent foreign policy actors" in their decisions on global issues, citing Airbnb's program to house people fleeing Ukraine.
"Suddenly, you're seeing corporate and civic actors playing a role alongside government," she said.
Gil said that as companies and governments increasingly work together, they're going to need to make decisions about which governments to work with. "You're going to have to make and operate under the new regime of alliances between countries that have elevated technology as a key source of strategic and competitive advantage," Gil said. "So I think the rules are going to be sharper."
Gil added that companies need to make choices about "what you do with the most advanced technologies" and which technologies are of top concern. For Gil, the top five include semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum, cyber and biotech. "There is definitely a marked difference about what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it."