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.