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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT