Google executive visits Pittsburgh, discusses Internet freedom, power and digital literacy

Written by Mila Sanina on .

It may be hard for you to imagine the world without Internet, but did you realize that 4.5 billion of people still do not have online access? It's hard to imagine the Internet without Google. But did you know that there are more than 30 countries where Google services have been blocked?

And it's a rare occasion to witness a Google executive speak about internet freedom in a theater nearly 100 years old. But that's exactly what happened on Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh: Google's Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations Ross LaJeunesse spoke at Kelly Strayhorn Theater, which opened in 1914, in East Liberty as part of the event organized by the World Affairs Council.
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His talk was titled "Freedom and Power in the Digital Age," he spoke on information security, freedom of information online and the rise of splinternets that emerge when governments worldwide are trying to control access to information on the web.
Mr. LaJeunesse began his speech with an anecdote about his niece who was born in the world where internet is a given and where she wants to swipe her television screen because that's how it works with the devices she is familiar with, she does not know look at the world as pre-internet or post-internet. It's just internet.  
The Google executive made a strong case in favor of free Internet, arguing that it's what people want even if their government doesn't and it's in line with Google's mission, which is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
"We live in the world where information is the most valuable commodity." And authorities worldwide are realizing how powerful this freedom can be, LaJeunesse said. He cited just a few cases of how a blog post, a YouTube video, a picture changed the world in a past few years: Bassem Youssef, a satirist known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," started his comedy on YouTube, Martha Payne, who posted photos of her school lunch on her blog, inspired movements like hers worldwide. 
Everyone has a stake in free Internet, Mr. LaJeunesse argued. "If a company says it's not an Internet company?  I'd sell the stock."
Of course, these days when Snowden revelations bring more surprises every day about how connectedness makes us vulnerable, there are plenty of concerns about privacy and data protection online. LaJeunesse did not dispute that, but said that Google treats these things seriously. "It cannot afford doing otherwise, we realize that competition is just one click away."
But there is also need for digital literacy, parents need to make sure their kids understand what appropriate and not appropriate to post online, how to encrypt your data and protect yourself, LaJeunesse said. 
"We have to teach our kids how to be better citizens."
LaJeunesse confessed that he is not on Twitter and chooses to read his Sunday edition of the New York Times in print. He said that the beauty of technology is that people have choices. You can opt out or opt in depending on your comfort level. 


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