Smart, strategic, and frequently inscrutable, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt's comments must often be closely analyzed. Sometimes they're discounted as regrettable, off-the-cuff remarks. Other times, his statements are a window into what is really going on inside his company.
On Wednesday, Schmidt shocked big media conglomerates, federal lawmakers, and apparently even executives within his own company when he told reporters in London that Google would defy U.S. government attempts to remove sites from the Web that are accused of trafficking in pirated goods. Schmidt, who was at Google's helm during an unprecedented decade-long run of online-advertising success, was referring to a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last week called Protect IP.
The legislation is designed to give federal law enforcement the ability to take Web sites offline that the Justice Department alleges are infringing intellectual property. Search engines, payment processors and ad companies could be ordered to cut off any financial dealings with these sites. According to U.K. publication, the Guardian, Schmidt made an issue of the bill's possible impacts on free speech. He told reporters: "If there is a law that requires [Domain Name Systems, the protocol that allows users to connect to Web sites], to do x, and it's passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president of the United States, and we disagree with it, then we would still fight it."
Schmidt warned that any government could silence dissenting opinion by accusing site operators of piracy. He compared such laws with those employed by countries with repressive governments, such as China. To astonished copyright owners, Schmidt's message was clear. He was bashing a bill that copyright owners big and small see as vital to fighting intellectual property theft online, a bill that others at Google had offered conditional support for only a month earlier. Some smelled a double cross.
"This contradicts the recent testimony of (Google general counsel Kent Walker during a hearing called by a House subcommittee investigating online piracy) that the company takes copyright theft seriously," said the Recording Industry Association of America, the music labels' trade group, in a statement. The implications were that if Google was finished with antipiracy, the company was also giving up on obtaining content for Google TV, YouTube and the company's recently launched cloud-music service. As Google has sought to license more professionally made content, creators have pressured it to do more piracy fighting.
Google's flip-flopping antipiracy position only became more confusing when the company began to spread word among lawmakers in the wake of Schmidt's remarks that he was quoted out of context, according to Congressional sources. They added that Google also left the impression that whatever it was Schmidt said, he wasn't speaking for the company. Google issued a statement that wasn't anywhere near as defiant as Schmidt's. "We continue to work closely with Congress to make sure the Protect IP Act will target sites dedicated to piracy while protecting free expression."
Whether this is enough to smooth things over on Capitol Hill and among backers of Protect IP is unclear. Certainly, onlookers and interested parties are left with more questions than answers. Schmidt's comments, coupled with the breakdown in talks with the top record labels over the licensing of Google's cloud music service, has some content creators wondering if Google has had a change of heart about improving relations with copyright owners.
For over a year, Google prepared to launch a service that would allow users to upload their music to the company's server and access their music libraries from Web-connected devices. Then, this month, Google launched a service without any licensing from the major labels. The record companies were looking forward to Google challenging Apple in digital music but were less than thrilled with Google's approach.
Another possibility that must be raised is that Schmidt, on finding himself in the spotlight again, decided to float one of his headline-grabbing remarks. He has a long history here.
"We know where you are," he once said during a discussion on privacy. "We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about." Critics boiled down his statement to one word: "creepy."
In 2009, Schmidt defended his company's vast accumulation of user data this way: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." After that, even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a traditional Google ally, questioned whether Schmidt possessed an adequate grasp on the importance of privacy protection.
Google as copyright foe
But among the techie masses, it will likely be hard to find many who will criticize Schmidt's comments about combating Protect IP. The bill isn't popular with the file-sharing and free-content crowd and hearing that Schmidt and Google may once again ride to the rescue against big copyright will come as good news. Schmidt's swagger, tech credentials and winning record against old media have helped make him a hero in these circles.
Google aggregated headlines and story snippets from big newspaper companies without sharing ad revenue and faced down objections from the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. "Google is a great source of promotion," Schmidt said.
After acquiring YouTube in 2006, Google helped turn the video-sharing service into one of the Web's most important entertainment and communication hubs. The company began this at a time when the largest film studios and TV networks were threatening to sue. Viacom, parent company of MTV and Paramount Pictures, did sue eventually for copyright infringement but Google triumphed there as well, winning a decision last year at the district-court level. Viacom has appealed.
Google leaders made content much more accessible than it had been in the past and online users were grateful.
Google's history of clashes with big media companies, however, is one reason why it's hard to find anyone in Hollywood or at the major labels that trusts the company to voluntarily lend a hand on antipiracy. That said, the fact is some of the biggest entertainment companies want Google in their corner.
In music, the labels hope Google's cloud will loosen Apple's grip on digital-music retailing. To the film and TV sectors, YouTube offers a large and attractive audience. Most importantly, Google's search engine is such a vital part of mainstream Internet use--and a big part of locating pirated material--that should it choose to, the company could easily tip the balance of power in the antipiracy fight in favor of copyright owners.
So maybe Schmidt's comments will serve to remind everyone that for any serious antipiracy effort, Google's help is essential.
Correction:4:36 p.m. PT: This story erred in citing the source of Schmidt's quotes. The name of the publication is the Guardian.