Culture

Google this: Why CEOs won't speak their minds

Taking a stance on policy and national politics, Google execs may ruffle some feathers. But it's a refreshing change for an increasingly scripted industry.

Earlier Thursday, Richard Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel in Washington, posted a note on the company's official blog urging people to put pressure on the FCC to open up the unused "white spaces" radio spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission is going to vote on rules governing these airwaves at its November 4 meeting. This is going to be quite a big deal. Commission Chairman Kevin Martin supports the idea, but it faces opposition from broadcasters, who are pushing for a delay. Mike Masnick of TechDiret summarizes the history here.

"Basically, the FCC handed out a ton of spectrum (for free, mind you) to TV broadcasters years ago. In order to prevent against interference, there's always been a requirement for some "buffer" space. However, as technology has improved, the need for this buffer space has decreased, and plenty of tech companies would be interested in making use of some of that basically unused spectrum by having it set aside as open spectrum. Earlier this year, some of those companies, led by Microsoft and Google, delivered a device to the FCC to test. Unfortunately, the device had some problems. However, the concept is sound -- and with some tweaking, it's quite reasonable that such a device could work without interfering with TV signals. But you wouldn't know that from broadcasters, who love to hoard their spectrum."

The fact that Whitt lobbied on behalf of his company's cause is hardly surprising. What's more interesting is that Google's executives are as comfortable as they are when it comes to drawing lines in the political sand.

Does this man Google? Obama for President Web site

High-profile companies try to avoid controversy. Wading into public policy, there's always the risk of alienating customers or partners. That's why PR handlers at Google-scale organizations council their executives be be boring to the point of soporific when it comes to any subject remotely bordering on the political.

But that did not stop CEO Eric Schmidt from endorsing Barack Obama. Ditto for Vint Cerf the company's vice president and "Chief Internet Evangelist," who put a video on YouTube where he explained his decision to vote for Obama.

(Officially, Google doesn't have a horse in this race and companies are prohibited from making campaign contributions. You can find Obama contributors who listed their employer as Google on a list compiled by Opensecrets.org. But that doesn't reveal much other than that people have opinions. What a shocker. You can find much the same thing about Microsoft, Yahoo, or any other high-profile technology company, for that matter.)

The anti-Schmidt blowback in the online talkback forums was predictable. One reader with the handle "Gerry S" left this message:

"What kind of an idiot would support the likes of these people in any way? Attention stockholders, if this is the business mentality of certain business leaders, then you might want use their judgment to assess their leadership skills."

That's to be expected, but I found the decision by Schmidt and Cerf to go public quite refreshing. Last month, company co-founder Sergey Brin announced Google's opposition to Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that would prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

Even though the tech firmament is comprised of a lot of very smart people, they don't like to stick out their necks. With rare exception--aside from Steve Ballmer's "heck with Janet Reno" quip--the only technology leader who has consistently been willing to stake out public positions on policy questions is T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor.

Or they discover their lungs after retiring.

Judy Estrin, one of tech's most successful entrepreneurs, recently authored a book, Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy. The book is a marvelous, albeit depressing read. Nothing was out of bounds--from the politicization of science and the neglect of the nation's research community to the need for new political leadership. But might Estrin just as easily have offered the same critique when she was still a working stiff? I'm not so sure. We're all so careful these days to tiptoe around the obvious that the frank talk most often takes place behind closed doors.

Too bad. With the nation facing both an economic recession as well as a vexing energy challenge, is now really the best time to be talking in hushed tones?