Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has just spent a week trying to win over the Europeans. First was a stop by Brussels to talk with the European Commission’s antitrust and competition chief. Then a few days in Paris, cutting the ribbon for the new Google headquarters with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, finished off by a Google-hosted conference on Internet freedom at The Hague.
Slate.fr met with Schmidt at the company’s soon-to-be-former Paris headquarters, where Schmidt discussed the pending antitrust cases against Google, his thoughts on “search neutrality,” and whether the company will ever give up on its social-network dreams. An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Slate.fr: What was the purpose of your trip in Brussels?
The meeting with [European competition commissioner Joaquin] Almunia was a checkpoint. They have not told us what they have found they are asking. They’ve been asking for a year, but they have not told us yet what their concerns are. It was a pleasant meeting, but he didn’t say anything, he didn’t say, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, you have to change this”… I have no idea. I also have no idea in the United States. We are waiting. We believe our operations are legal under European and U.S. law, but we are happy to talk to the regulators on any subject to confirm our understanding, to see if they disagree.
My own view is that this is largely a legal matter. I was asked to testify in Congress; I did that in October. We’ve said what we think, but we’re waiting on them. We’ve been very careful to go through everything we’re doing. We have lots of lawyers ourselves. We have lawyers here in Europe; we have lawyers in Brussels.
Slate.fr: Do you think there should be search neutrality?
Schmidt: Define search neutrality.
Slate.fr: Search neutrality would be that when somebody looks up something on Google, for example, that Google’s products wouldn’t necessarily come up first. It’s something that Yelp, for example, has accused you of.
Schmidt: The reason I ask is that the term search neutrality was invented by Microsoft, who funded a group who tried to promote people to ask me this question.
In Yelp’s case, Yelp has been a very big critic of us, and yet Yelp also gets a great deal of traffic with Google. If you type in a restaurant’s name, you will see that we will take you to Yelp very quickly. We’re satisfied that if you ask questions about a restaurant you can get to Yelp and we treat them the same.
Yelp is upset because we’re trying to build a local business where we are trying to have more info about restaurants, but God did not say that restaurant information should only be on Yelp, and as long as we will give you the information we have and let you go to Yelp, we think that’s good because our goal is to satisfy the consumer.
Slate.fr: Let us rephrase this question. Are you using the search engine you have and the fact that you are dominant on the search-engine market in most parts of the world—
especially France—are you using this dominant position to promote some other services and products of yours?
Schmidt: As your question is stated, the answer is no. Let me tell you what we are doing, which is similar to the premise of the question. We’re trying to answer the question.
Two years ago if you said, “What is the weather in Paris?” you would see five sites, which you would click on, and you’d see that it’s raining and 55. Today you say, “What is the weather in Paris?” and we will say it’s 55 and raining, and then we will show you the five links.
The reason we did that is because we think it’s faster for you, if we know the answer, to just tell you the weather. One click instead of two. We say that’s moving from links to answers.
The weather example is at the core of what we’re arguing: We don’t want to be prevented if we know the answer to the question to just answer it to you; that is the antitrust concern we have.
Slate.fr: You talk about weather, but since you own your own services of music and video, if I say I want to hear the latest Lady Gaga, if you go to the first answer, the result will be the video on YouTube for example.
Schmidt: Yes, and we would also show you the others. From a legal perspective, there is not a legal requirement that we treat everybody the same. Our mission is to get the best answer. So if you say, “I want the best music from Lady Gaga,” and if we could algorithmically compute that answer, I would want to give it to you right then and there, subject to rules and copyright and all of that. And I would also want to show you all the other ways in which you could get the answer. If there’s any question that I can compute more accurately than another website, if I can give it to you faster, we want to be able to do that.
Slate.fr: But you’ll always be able to compute faster with your own products.
Schmidt: Maybe. It depends on whether we have the data or not. The reason I picked weather is because it’s simple, you can just license the weather, but there’s a lot of data for which it’s complicated and we can’t compute faster because we don’t have the data. In the case that you described of Lady Gaga, there are many good Lady Gaga sites. We don’t prevent you from going on them in any way.
Slate.fr: Yes, but you also know that for a lot of people Google is the Internet.
Schmidt: First, I would tell you that Google is not the Internet. And last time I checked, wasn’t Facebook doing really well? Maybe Facebook is doing very well on the Internet, too, and maybe Twitter is doing very well on the Internet, too, so I think that arguing that Google is the only path is just materially false.
But in any case I will give you the URLs of Yelp and I will encourage you to go directly, in fact you can bookmark them on Chrome, you can make them your home page, trust me even using our products, we’d love you to go to Yelp, especially if you’re using Chrome.
Slate.fr: You’re in the market of search engines, advertising, smartphones, music, social networks, operating systems, video, mail, maps. What’s the next step?
Schmidt: I’m sure you’ve missed a few. I think the biggest area is probably e-commerce. The NFC stuff. This phone [Schmidt shows his latest Nexus and starts tapping it repeatedly against the table as he speaks to demonstrate] has an NFC chip in it you can go to a terminal and pay, with the Google wallet. We really like this product, and I think that in terms of scale and impact it’s probably the next one.
Slate.fr: Is there anything you do not want to do?
Schmidt: There’s a long list of things we don’t want to do. We never say never, but Google is a consumer-oriented technology product company. We are probably not going to get into the direct content business like making movies, running newspapers, those sorts of things. Better for us to be a distributor and have the creative people on the other side. We want to be your customer, we want to be your partner.
Our hardware efforts are relatively limited, and they tend to be tied with making our software better. That’s changing with the Motorola acquisition, but hardware would be limited to pretty much what Motorola is doing.
One day Google founders Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page] called me into their office and announced that they were building a new business, and they explained to me that I should come along with this business and I would really like it. They said, “We think we should be manufacturing big things,” and I said, “Like what?”And they went “Like refrigerators.” We had this five-minute conversation about the benefits of having a smart refrigerator, and then I realized it was all a joke. So that’s another example: We’re not doing refrigerators.
Slate.fr: You’ve launched three social networks in two years with Wave and Buzz and Plus…
Schmidt: I’m not sure Wave is a social network. Wave was a different version of e-mail. But yes.
Slate.fr: Why would Google+ succeed where Wave and Buzz didn’t?
Schmidt: Well these things are hard to do. I want to say that what Facebook has done is very difficult to do and they should be given credit for that.
It’s hard to get the privacy right, it’s hard to get the scale right, it’s hard to get people to spend time on it and so forth. In Wave, the product simply didn’t work, from the moment we announced Wave, its adoption declined. In Buzz, we had problems with privacy because it was centered on email, and we made some mistakes there. So we canceled them both.
With Google + we learned from those two experiences. I use Google+, and I find the quality of the comments are very sophisticated because there is more trust inside of Google+ than there is inside of Twitter and Facebook for example.
Slate.fr: Would you consider not pursuing the social network if this doesn’t work?
Schmidt: We need the information about yourself and your friends to make our products work better so we will always, I think, have something like that.
Interview conducted and edited by Cécile Dehesdin, Johan Hufnagel, and Eric Leser.