Eric Schmidt veers between the defensive and the philosophical when describing how Google is coping with the constant eruption of controversy over its handling of privacy, copyright and other tricky public policy issues.
“Whack-a-mole is our life,” says the youthful-looking 55-year-old chief executive of the world’s most powerful and profitable internet company, based in Mountain View, California. “We are simply the symbol of the question of public and private behaviour, and special interests and narrow interests.”
In an hour-long interview at Google’s London headquarters, Mr Schmidt set out why he believed Google had attracted charges of arrogance and insensitivity, notably in the recent case involving the interception of data collected via its Street View service from unsecured WiFi connections.
“Google is big and Google is disruptive by design. We are trying to do things that are new and when you disrupt things, the people who are being disrupted complain. We are in the information business and everyone has an opinion about information. But the laws [covering these areas] are inconsistent.”
He adds: “The arrogance comes across because we try to do things for end-users against organised opposition from stakeholders that are unhappy – and they paint us as arrogant. But I am sure that all successful organisations have some arrogance in them.”
Mr Schmidt – wearing a disarming smile – is politely dismissive of those who say that Google’s internal culture is largely to blame for the controversy plaguing the company.
Critics say it is disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people, but Mr Schmidt counters that the “launch first, correct later” approach is vital to the ultra-creative and flexible company DNA that has produced the world’s most popular search engine, Gmail, and Google Earth, which maps the entire planet.
His remedy is to protect the company’s freewheeling culture, while adopting a rigorous policy of owning up to mistakes and correcting them. That might mean more lawyers and more privacy briefings, but the engineers must be given space to work their software magic. “In the eyes of sophisticated people, we gain trust by being transparent.”
Mr Schmidt is also at pains to separate the controversy over Street View from the spasm of criticism over privacy settings for Buzz, Google’s answer to Facebook and other social networking sites.
In the first case, an engineer, who is now the subject of an internal investigation at the company, inserted a vital piece of code into Street View software systems “in clear violation” of operating procedures but undetected by colleagues. The latter case involved a “testing failure” in which engineers only trialled Buzz internally and did not take into account how it would be viewed by the general public. The privacy settings – which critics said exposed personal information about users without their permission – were corrected within four days.
By contrast, Mr Schmidt shows no contrition when responding to the recent court ruling in Italy convicting three top Google executives of criminal wrongdoing after its YouTube video website showed footage of a disabled boy being bullied by classmates.
“The judge was flat wrong. So let’s pick at random three people and shoot them. It’s bullshit. It offends me and it offends the company.
“But this is not an indictment of Italy,” says Mr Schmidt, who earlier noted that Europe was a highly profitable market for the company.
There is a sense at the top of Google that the world is definitely becoming a less friendly place for internet companies. The shift goes beyond the issue of privacy or the company’s recent decision to withdraw from China on the grounds of censorship.
As Rachel Whetstone, Google’s head of communications and policy, notes: “In the last 25 years, regulation of the internet has been very benign. That is changing.”
For Google, the shift poses a huge challenge because of its own relentless drive to innovate and produce new products in real time. “I want to have checks and balances. But it would be terrible to put a chilling effect on creativity. We have to find a way to continue to be creative with some more oversight.”
As the interview draws to a close, Mr Schmidt is asked when Google’s own internal investigation into the Street View privacy blunder will be complete and whether the company will make its findings public.
Mr Schmidt turns to Ms Whetstone. “What do you want to do?”
Democracy, it seems, is alive and well in Mountain View.