Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman and former CEO, says that work needs to be done toward stopping the spread of hate and harassment online. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times this afternoon, Schmidt writes that it's necessary for governments, tech companies, and individuals — basically everyone — to make sure that the internet is used for improving the lives of others worldwide, rather than for oppression or recruitment into terrorist groups.
"We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media."
"We should make it ever easier to see the news from another country’s point of view, and understand the global consciousness free from filter or bias," Schmidt writes. "We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media — sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment. We should target social accounts for terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and remove videos before they spread, or help those countering terrorist messages to find their voice."
While these aren't new issues online, Schmidt identifies them as growing and increasingly important problems as the web spreads globally. With people coming online for the first time and in areas where oppression persists, the internet can be used as a tool to continue that oppression. Schmidt points to Russia, where "farms of online trolls systematically harass democratic voices," and to the Middle East, where ISIS uses propaganda videos to recruit new militants. "In short," he writes, "they are deluding some people to believe that living a life fueled by hatred and violence is actually… cool."
Schmidt believes these technologies are "within reach"
Schmidt's op-ed follows similar remarks from President Obama, who last night said that while "the internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers." He similarly asked government and tech leaders to limit terrorists' online capabilities, saying they should "make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."
Tech leaders seem to be slowly acknowledging the importance of these tools, but there's been little visible movement toward creating them. Twitter, for instance, has promised to address its repeated harassment issues, but its biggest improvements have been around blocking — not filtering the issue out in the first place. Schmidt is unsurprisingly optimistic about the tech industry's ability to get there, writing that tools to combat hate online are "within reach." But his optimism comes with a warning: "Without this type of leadership from government, from citizens, from tech companies, the internet could become a vehicle for further disaggregation of poorly built societies, and the empowerment of the wrong people, and the wrong voices."