by Rob Colvile
25 May 2013

from TheTelegraph Website



Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt

Photo: Rii Schroer




What is the future of the online world?

Robert Colvile meets Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt,

the man who knows the answer.


In the car park of an upmarket country house hotel near Watford, the Telegraph’s photographer is trying to get one of the world’s most powerful men to fall into a hedge.

“Lean over a little more, Eric,” she urges, in an attempt to conjure up a more interesting picture.

Rather than standing on dignity, Eric Schmidt is happy to comply, shifting his weight deeper into the foliage with avuncular nonchalance, before calling over his co-author for a shared arboreal encounter.

It’s not typical billionaire behaviour - especially when the next meeting in your diary is with the Prime Minister.


But then, Schmidt is hardly a typical billionaire. In 2001, the software executive was recruited by Google’s young founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to run the hottest start-up in Silicon Valley.


After a decade as Google’s CEO - during which it grew into an internet-dominating behemoth - Schmidt stepped upstairs to become executive chairman, serving as the company’s public face, ambassador and general plenipotentiary, as well as sitting on both David Cameron and Barack Obama’s business councils. If the hedgerows have left an impression, he can certainly afford the dry cleaning bills.

Yet his willingness to play along with such stunts isn’t the only thing that marks Schmidt out.


For one thing, there’s The New Digital Age, the book he’s in Britain to publicize - first at Google’s exclusive Zeitgeist conference (described by the company as an “intimate gathering of top global thinkers and leaders”, whose ranks have included everyone from Bill Clinton to Arsène Wenger) and then at the Telegraph Hay Festival.

“I’m told that this is the most significant book festival in the world,” he says, excitedly.

Absolutely, I reassure him. He seems pleased.

Schmidt might not be terribly familiar with the literary circuit, but there’s no doubt that he’s taking his book seriously. His co-author, Jared Cohen, was a foreign policy strategist for the Bush and Obama administrations, and now runs Google Ideas, the firm’s in-house think-tank. Between them, they not only wrote up three different versions of the book - the final one ruthlessly copy-edited by Schmidt’s daughter - but carved out the time to travel to roughly 30 countries.


The book is littered with references to exotic locations, such as Kabul and Baghdad (where Schmidt was among the first visitors after the Iraq War). When, in the course of our conversation, Cohen nominates Chad as the world’s poorest and most desperate country, I counter with South Sudan: it turns out that he and Schmidt have visited both.

Why take such risks, particularly given Schmidt’s exalted position?


Cohen explains that the central theme of the book - and of his work,

“is what the world looks like when five billion new people come online in the next decade”.

And where, he asks, are those people?

“Parts of the world where there’s instability, conflict, where the governance model is repressive. They’re actually going to be the vast majority of our future users, so Eric and I sat down and said: ‘Let’s go meet them a little’.”

As a result, the book represents something of a departure, both for Schmidt and for Google.


To date, the firm’s vision of the future has largely concerned whizz-bang technological wonders, such as driverless cars or hi-tech glasses that project a computer display in your peripheral vision.


The New Digital Age does contain its share of techno-dazzle: the opening chapters discuss the elimination of pesky charging cables, the proliferation of robots and holograms, and even haircuts that “will finally be automated and machine-precise” (I love the “finally”, as if a hue and cry has been growing for years against slapdash barbers).

Yet at heart, the book is a sober examination of what current technological trends mean for our future.


That includes,

  • the ability of repressive governments to turn every smartphone into a bugging device

  • the breakdown of privacy

  • the danger of countries setting up their own, censored versions of the internet

  • the threat of hackers, terrorists and cyber-warfare

  • at root, the fact that people and governments will have to function in both the real and virtual worlds, which will not just overlap but collide

The book, says Schmidt, is an attempt to “get the conversation going” about these issues, to foster solutions.


The reception to Google's London head office


Some reviewers of the book have, I point out, argued that it ignores the elephant in the room, namely Google’s own role, and the amount of power it is steadily accruing over our lives.


But for Schmidt and Cohen, there is essentially no distinction between Google’s good and the world’s. Giving more people more information makes their lives better, and makes Google richer and more able to help more people.


This is a virtuous circle from which, in their view, everyone benefits: not just in terms of free email accounts or mapping software, but greater connectivity, transparency and personal freedom.

“Google is more than a business,” says Schmidt.


“Google is a belief system. And we believe passionately in the open internet model. So all of the answers to the questions that we give are, at the core, about the benefits of a free and open internet.”

This near-evangelical approach explains the pair’s preferred solution to many of the world’s problems: in effect, more Google.


Recently, they visited North Korea: they were widely criticized, not least because the regime could depict them as decadent capitalists paying due homage to Kim Jong-un.


Schmidt accepts that such propaganda was inevitable, but argues that getting the dictator to open up the internet is,

“the single best way to fix the problems of North Korea” - and adds that if you ask, you might just get.

Others, however, do not see Google so kindly.


This week, Schmidt was embroiled in a nasty row about tax avoidance, due to accusations that - in seeming violation of its famous pledge not to “be evil” - Google sold online advertising in London but booked it in Dublin, creating billions in revenues but paying just £2 million a year in corporation tax.

In defence, Schmidt points to Google’s record of job creation and investment:

“I understand that people are frustrated… but this is how international tax regimes work, and we have to follow the rules.”

He is similarly robust when I ask whether he thinks his company has undue political influence.

“Doesn’t the Guardian, and the Telegraph, and the Times? I think I could argue that the press has more impact on politics than corporations.”

And what about people who call for Google and co to do more to regulate what people - especially children - can see on the net?

“The core problem,” he says, “is that the world is full of people who would like to take 99 per cent of the information that’s on the internet, and eliminate 1 per cent. Everyone has their own thing they don’t like.”

More broadly, Schmidt and Cohen do have plenty of warnings about the way things are going - for instance, over governments’ tendency, even in democracies, to increase surveillance of the population.

“You have to fight for your privacy, or you will lose it,” Schmidt insists. “Whenever there’s a conflict, the logic of security will trump the right to privacy.”

He also talks passionately about the need to balance entrepreneurial freedom and regulation, citing the way that the US railroad system was mired in corruption when it was left to private interests, and starved of innovation when the government cracked down.

Yet at heart, Google’s executive chairman is something of an optimist.


He doesn’t subscribe, for example, to the idea that technology is somehow transforming our nature: the internet, he says,

“is just another tool for empowering individuals”.

I mention Time magazine’s recent suggestion that the web’s delivery of what you want, when you want, is turning young people into narcissists, and he makes a pained face.

“To argue that this generation is different is to ignore history,” he insists.


“Read the coverage about the King’s Road in the Sixties, and the pop revolution. You want to talk about narcissism? Those people all grew up, and they’re all 65 or 70 years old, and they all seem to have perfectly fine lives.”

Despite all the challenges that we face - both in the developed and developing world - Schmidt retains a supreme self-confidence that both he and Google are going the right way about serving them.


Indeed, after the book tour, he and Cohen have a one-line itinerary: implement its ideas.

“This is what I do,” says Schmidt.


“I’m not going to stop. I mean, I really do believe this stuff, and I do believe it’s important. In whatever number of years I have on earth, I think that promoting the values of free expression, the openness of the internet, that’s the best use of my time.”

As I leave, he’s inquiring about the itinerary for his trip to Downing Street - bracken stains and all.