Google chief executive talks privacy and trust

Google's Eric Schmidt outlines his company's approach to privacy, censorship and user content.

On the final session of Google's European Press Day, chief executive Eric Schmidt said that his company is "extremely sensitive" to the issue of privacy and if this meant that users stopped trusting his company, it would have a problem.

He also said that user content would be critical to the success of future internet applications.

Citing the success of YouTube he maintained that user-generated content would be crucial for shaping the design of future applications. "The killer app that people keep looking for," he said, "will be one generated by users. It's the one everyone contributes to and that's why it will be powerful."

It will also be viral in nature, he believes: "The spread of information is viral. It's person to person, thumb to thumb (referring to texting). This represents a fundamental shift in the way apps should be designed."

"Personal Search is perhaps the next big phenomena," he said. "The best search is a personal search, one that you can control. 'I know what I want, I know what I like, better than anyone else'."

Citing users' desires to customise and adapt, he highlighted the success - unexpected, he claimed - of iGoogle, the customised Google-based homepage. "iGoogle is the ringtone of Google," he joked.

The wider goal to achieve perfect search results is still distant, however. "We are trying to close the gap between what I mean and what I type," he said "If I type 'Paris is hot', do I mean France is warm or the girl in a jail in California?"

Of all the technologies in prospect, he said cross-language translations was the most promising for unlocking search data. As an example of how far there is to go in this area, he mentioned the Library of Alexandria, supposedly a record of every book in existence in its day - apparently only 1 per cent of its remaining one million works have been translated outside their own language.

Highlighting the power of Moore's law he envisaged 'iPod-like' devices appearing within 20 years that could store more than 85-years' worth of video - "you'll be dead before you can watch it all," he said. And, of course this inevitable proliferation of data means more need for Google's processing and more demand for its services.

Talking of Apple devices, he flashed Apple's iPhone from his pocket and boasted that Google Maps on the device looked stunning: "It's a powerful new device," he said, "and that category of [devices] is going to be particularly good for the kind of apps Google is building."

When it came to dealing with China, he described the decision to do business in mainland China as one of the hardest Google has had to consider. But he was unrepentant, maintaining it was the right choice and his only regret was that Google did not enter that market earlier.

When it comes to privacy, Schmidt said that the trust of users had to be constantly earned - that they could always easily migrate to a rival service. "I'm extremely sensitive to this issue," said Schmidt, "If people stop trusting Google, then we have a problem. Everything is gated on this issue. Our rivals are only one click away."

The issue of retaining data and operating globally was repeatedly raised at the Q&A in Paris. It PRO's sister publication PC Pro asked Schmidt how Google - globally storing and processing data - could practically take account of particular national regulations, such as the UK's Data Protection Act. "That's a question we are always asking in staff meetings, but it is something we have to do," said Schmidt. "The best approach is to be open and transparent," he maintained.

Things are not always clear cut, however, he admitted. Dealing with data in 240 languages, it wasn't always clear whether a particular piece of data may be governed by Brazilian law, for example, or US law. "We have to take it on a case by case basis," he said, but insisted that Google had to respect the laws of the countries it operated in.

"Anyone who thinks the Internet is borderless hasn't paid attention to the people going to jail," was his stronger response to a similar question about Google's global presence and its need to tread carefully.

But what about US jurisdiction over Google's operations - could the US demand access to data on other countries' citizens? "In principle, it is possible," he admitted. "In practice, however, it is essentially impossible, because of all the processes they would have to go through."

He was sensitive on the issue of Google putting "pressure" on governments in regard to data retention laws. "I'm sensitive to the use of such tough words" he said. "We are not a country, we do not have any nuclear bombs."

As for the topic of Microsoft, Schmidt was adamant. "Google versus Microsoft in the app space. Going head to head with Microsoft. We're not. I keep saying that but no one believes me."

Finally, he had some words to say on the fate of his Yahoo! counterpart, Terry Yemel. "Terry and I started out at the same time, we got to know each other really well. He was remarkably successfully in his leadership of Yahoo! We talked to each other often - we were rivals but we were both 'growing the market'. I'm sure the people at yahoo! will miss him."

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