Google chairman Eric Schmidt is worried about the future of internet openness in Burma (also called Myanmar), one of the least-connected countries in the world. In a post on his Google+ page published Sunday, Schmidt describes some of his initial impressions after visiting the country last month, when Google launched new services there. While some of Schmidt's takeaways are optimistic, he's concerned that local, long-simmering religious conflicts will spill out onto the internet and could lead to a new era of repression in Burma, just as the country attempts to emerge from military rule that ended in 2011.
"What will happen when the Internet arrives in Myanmar?" Schmidt writes in his post, continuing:
As the police state has withdrawn, always present religious tensions have erupted with burning of homes and some murders. With popular support, the government then responded with the Army to restore order. In the same way, we are entering a dangerous period for the Internet in Myanmar. What happens when a religious group falsely claims damages from others.. will the Army be sent in too? The country cannot even agree on a press freedoms law for the newspapers, and freedom of political speech is a one year old concept.
Schmidt points to democratic activist and Burmese politican Aung San Suu Kyi as one person in the country who could help keep the internet free of censorship, and highlights the "essential good nature of Burmese citizen" as another reason for hope.
Currently, Burma ranks second-to-last in the world when it comes to internet connectivity, with less than one percent of its population receiving access, according to The World Bank. Schmidt's vocal public stance in favor of internet openness abroad isn't new — he made similar public statements about North Korea and India when he visited those countries recently, and his daughter Sophie Schmidt blogged about her own nuanced observations of North Korean life. Clearly, an interest in geopolitics runs in the family.