At last Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was “fuzzy” on several issues. For example, on the issue of “search manipulation,” whether Google manipulates search results to favor its own, Schmidt again, seemed conveniently clueless.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI): “During a conference in 2007, Marissa Mayer, one of Google’s top executives, discussed how Google placed its own products and services on its search results page. Speaking of the Google Finance service, she said that ‘in the past, Google ranked links, quote, ‘based on popularity.’ But when we rolled out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair. Isn’t that right? We do all the work for the search page, and all these other things, so we do it — put it first. That has actually been our policy since then.’”
Sen. Kohl pressed, “So when she made that comment back in 2007, she was speaking, in her mind, accurately. How do you measure what she said then and what you’re telling us now?”
Schmidt who was Google’s CEO in 2007 responded, “I wasn’t there, so maybe I should use my own voice on this question…”
Sen. Kohl repeated Mayer’s quote and asked again, “Now, you recognize, of course, if that’s company policy, that’s very in the contrary to what you’re telling us here today.”
Schmidt (under oath) stumbled, “Well, again, I can speak for the policy of the company during my tenure. And I — and I’m representing it as I implemented and understood it. And in our case, we implemented it the way I described it. And I’ll let Marissa speak for herself on her quote.”
Kohl simplified his questioning for Schmidt, “But to be listed first is an advantage, isn’t it?”
To this Schmidt responded, “In this particular case, we don’t actually list anybody first.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) continued with questions about search manipulation, to which Schmidt responded:
- “I’m not aware of any unnecessary or strange boosts or biases.”
- “I’m sorry, I may have confused you, and I apologize.”
- “I’d have to look at the specific results.”
- “I’d need to see – I’d actually need to see the technical details to give you a direct answer.”
But that wasn’t the end of Schmidt’s search manipulation confusion.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) brought Mayer’s quote up again: “There’s been a lot of talk about where – where – your placement on – on a search, companies. And – and I was a little taken aback by an answer you gave, when the chairman brought up Marissa Mayers’ quote…And you answered that by saying that, well, you put a map out there. When someone wants a map to someplace, you just put a map out there, and that’s what they want, and I sort of understand that, or a financial answer, a stock price. But then the ranking member asked you, well, when that’s not the case, when you’re not putting out the answer that people want, when you’re not doing that, do all your rankings reflect an unbiased algorithm? And you said — after a little hesitation — “I believe so.”
Then, Sen. Franken said the two things that a lot of people watching the hearing must have been thinking:
- “That seemed like a pretty fuzzy answer to me coming from the chairman. If you don’t know, who does?”; and
- “That really bothers me, because that’s the crux of this, isn’t it? And you don’t know. So we’re – we’re trying to have a hearing here about whether you favor your own stuff, and you’re asked that question, and you admittedly don’t know the answer.”
Without straight answers, it seems that it’s impossible to even follow President Reagan’s advice to trust, but verify. And that’s another reason why the Federal Trade Commission and four state attorneys general are investigating Google’s business practices, not to mention the European Commission, for potential violations of antitrust and competition law.