Google CEO defends privacy policies

Chief Executive Eric Schmidt says the company's technology doesn't violate its founding motto, "Don't be evil."

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt acknowledged that his company's search engine can ruffle privacy feathers, but said the company's technology doesn't violate the company's founding motto, "Don't be evil."

Schmidt discovered his own home phone number through Google, but said he was able to remove it by filling out Google's standard form. But Google shouldn't be blamed when that sort of private information crops up, he said.

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt
CEO, Google

"Google does not discover things that are not public," said Schmidt, answering questions on the stage of the Gartner Symposium here Wednesday. "Many people are disturbed to find their home phone number. But we found it because it was a public piece of information."

In response to a question about how Google treats consumer privacy, he tried to illustrate how the company's don't-be-evil philosophy trumps technology by recounting a meeting he attended with company co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In it, a business executive suggested a particular change at Google.

"One of the engineers says, 'That's evil.' It was like setting off a bomb in the middle of the table," Schmidt said. The concern was taken seriously: "You can pull the ripcord and stop the production line."

He added that after a long debate, the engineer's assessment prevailed over the business executive's idea. "They concluded it was (evil), and this poor person was thrown out the room."

Google has faced growing privacy complaints as the company's power has increased. Consumer advocates and legislators criticized the search giant last year for its Gmail Web-based e-mail service and its practice of scanning e-mail documents to deliver related ads. The furor eventually died, but concerns remained.

More recently, Google's Web Accelerator has been the target of complaints. The company's map-linked satellite imagery also shines a spotlight on individual houses.

But the image detail is deliberately limited, Schmidt said. "We cannot see your swing set, and we're not trying to," he said. And Google has complied with some government agency requests to blank out areas of its satellite maps. But in general the benefits of more information outweigh the problems, he said.

"The value of more information so overwhelms its misuse that we've not had material problems there," Schmidt said.

The CEO also outlined his company's business strategy and technological advantages it has over traditional information technology companies. "Google is in the information industry, and that is a

much larger market than the IT industry," he said.

Google's top priorities are personalization and comprehensive content, which are appealing to consumers and provide the information market with a larger treasure trove than the IT industry, he said.

Google has been evaluating computing systems that can classify multimedia information such as video and audio, but that technology doesn't work on a large scale, he said. So for now, the search engine will focus on text and keyword searches.

With Yahoo as its main direct competitor, Google is seeking ways to be the most relevant for users. One example is ensuring its search technology works well with the increasingly popular Firefox open-source Web browser.

Google has recently hired several Mozilla engineers who played a key role with Firefox.

Although Schmidt didn't outright deny any interest the company might have in getting into the browser business, he did offer a less dramatic explanation for the recent hires: to make sure Google's products work with all Web browsers.

"Firefox has increasing market share as an alternative to Internet Explorer. The evidence so far (for its gains) is that it's basically around user interface and greater security. We have decided to work on a browser-independent strategy," Schmidt said.

He added that the hires also let Google tap into the open-source programming movement that's breathing new life into computing.

"Industries tended to coagulate and get stuck. The open-source movement as a whole is drawing some of the best and brightest new talent," Schmidt said. "It's clearly...bringing new people in, developing new solutions people haven't thought of. Google itself uses a variant of Linux."

Google balances its research investments with a formula Brin developed that maximizes generating new ideas. Seventy percent of the company's money is invested in areas relating to its core business of advertising and search, 20 percent in related but secondary businesses, and 10 percent for comparatively wild, new ideas.

"As for me, as CEO, I personally look at my calendar to make sure I'm spending 80 percent of my time on our core strategy," Schmidt said.