Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Let's get everyone online ASAP

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Tue April 16, 2013
Google chairman Eric Schmidt, center, arrives at Beijing airport from North Korea on January 10, 2013.
Google chairman Eric Schmidt, center, arrives at Beijing airport from North Korea on January 10, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google's Eric Schmidt says everyone will be online by 2020
  • John Sutter: That date is unlikely, but the challenge is worthy
  • He says access to free and open information is a human right
  • Sutter: In addition to infrastructure, government must roll back censorship

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist at CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- Google's Eric Schmidt isn't naive.

The tech exec has been bopping all around the world lately -- like the nerdy version of Carmen Sandiego -- talking to people in completely unconnected places like Myanmar and North Korea about the benefits of a future powered by the Internet.

He's seen the statistics -- that only 2.7 billion people, or 39% of the global population, are online; that only 7% of households in Africa have Internet access; and that countries like East Timor, Ethiopia and Burundi have Internet penetration rates of near zero.

Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of it, Schmidt claimed over the weekend that everyone in the world (capital "Everyone") will be connected to the Internet by 2020.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"For every person online, there are two who are not," he wrote on his Google+ page. "By the end of the decade, everyone on Earth will be connected."

That's 6 years, 8 months and 15-some days from now.

Pretty soon, huh?

It is. And it probably won't happen that fast. As countless bloggers and Twitter users have pointed out in the past 24 hours, we live in a world where only 63% have access to "improved sanitation facilities," i.e. toilets. Universal anything is difficult to achieve.

But instead of bemoaning the boldness of his prediction, we should take Schmidt's words as a challenge.

Information access is a human right. And until someone invents a version of that "Star Trek" computer, the Internet -- both on smartphones and on the pre-smartphone dinosaurs that sit on our desks -- is the best tool we have for spreading it.

Everyone should get Internet access by 2020.

2011: Schmidt on American innovation

And if not, then soon after.

Mobile phones no doubt will pull the date closer.

Still, nothing is assured.

It's somewhat annoying and self-serving that Schmidt is the one rallying people behind this cause. Google sorta runs the Internet. The company's executive chairman clearly stands to profit (even more) from the rapid expansion of digital communication technologies. And he also is promoting a new book on the subject, which comes out at the end of the month. So the timing of this fortune-telling is suspect.

But someone needed to set a date for the world to rally around. And Schmidt and co. may be in a unique position to actually help create a future where everyone can be online.

Meanwhile, his own travels provide an interesting template for why this matters -- and why getting anywhere near universal and open access by 2020 will be difficult.

Take North Korea, which Schmidt visited in January.

"Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference," wrote Schmidt's daughter, Sophie, who accompanied him on the trip. "I can't think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They're hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it."

It's easy to see how that could change with access to the world's information -- and how the current war of rhetoric between North and South Korea could be ratcheted down if either of the countries had full and unfiltered access to information about the other side.

But it's also clear that technological access is only one part of the battle. Governments around the world must peel back censorship laws and, in many cases, stop actively using the Internet to spy on their citizens. That's likely to be trickier than building infrastructure.

Schmidt's March trip to Myanmar also was instructive.

"A mobile phone costs $1,000 per year and doesn't really work anyway, and a tiny number of the 60 (million) Burmese have Internet access," he wrote on Google+. "There is no data service on their mobile network and no international roaming ... Myanmar is one of the last countries to get connected to the Internet, and it will not be a smooth path."

He goes on to question whether cultural trends will influence whether the Internet will be used for good or bad as it does expand in that country.

"Because of the phenomenon of 'anchoring,' where people believe the first thing they hear and anchor from that point," he writes, "will the Internet be used to inflame special interests after 60 years of silence, or will the essential good nature of Burmese citizens prevail and will the transition be smoother than many think?"

I hope it's the smoother transition -- and that it comes soon(ish).

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT