Google CEO Schmidt sits in Stephen Colbert's hot-seat

Talk show funny man Stephen Colbert introduced Eric Schmidt this way: "My guest tonight is the CEO of Google. At least that's what it said when I looked him up on Bing."

Schmidt appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report Tuesday. In the midst of the yucks, Colbert and Schmidt got in a couple of minutes of serious discussion about Google and privacy.

Schmidt denied that Google does data mining.

Colbert: "[Y]ou guys make your cash by doing essentially data mining on what we Americans are about, right?"

Schmidt: "Not true."

According to a definition on Google's own search, Data mining is "data processing using sophisticated data search capabilities and statistical algorithms to discover patterns and correlations in large preexisting databases; a way to discover new meaning in data" or "the process of extracting patterns from data." That second definition gives examples of applications: "marketing, surveillance, fraud detection and scientific discovery." But that's by no means an exclusive list.

What Google does is it sifts through indexes of Internet content to find answers to queries. That certainly seems to fit the definition of data mining.

But Schmidt says it's not. "Our computers go out and they find out everything going on on the web and they figure out what points to each other and that gives us the algorithm, which is called PageRank, and that’s how we decide how to rank the results," Schmidt told Colbert.

That's a simplification notes Danny Sullivan, at the blog Search Engine Land. "PageRank is actually only one of about 200 factors that Google says are in its ranking algorithm."

The Web never forgets, but Google does

Schmidt: "Well, it's true that we see your searches, but we forget them after a while."

That's not entirely true, Sullivan notes. Google remembers searches for people who've opted in to Google Web History. "Then Google will forget nothing until you explicitly tell it to."

Google is required by law to forget user searches in many countries, Schmidt said. Sullivan explains: "I think Schmidt’s referring to the European Union, which has both insisted that raw log data be destroyed after six months and confusingly pushed that it be retained longer. The six month recommendation still doesn’t seem to have the force of law throughout the EU. Microsoft follows it, but Google destroys data only after nine months, ignoring the recommendation. The data destroyed will not wipe out any of the aforementioned Google Web History information that users themselves may elect to keep."

Google and China

Colbert asked why Google pulled out of China. "Well, we didn't like their laws," Schmidt said. Says Sullivan: "My take, and I’m not alone, is that actually, Google didn’t like that the Chinese government seemed to be hacking into its intellectual property. Don’t get me wrong. It was never fond of the censorship it had to do. But having its own corporate systems attacked was the proverbial straw that seemed to spark Google’s 'enough is enough' reaction."

Sullivan is referring to an attack on Google servers early this year, which a security researcher said was likely done with support from Chinese authorities.

Colbert questioned Schmidt's comment, made last month, that young people wold one day change their names to escape the Internet history of transgressions.

"It was a joke," Schmidt said. "And it just wasn't very good."

Colbert responded, "I guess that's too hip for the room."

Schmidt admonished people to keep in mind that "when you post something [to the Internet], that the computers remember forever." He clarified that it's not Google that does the remembering, it's the entire Web. "And if it's really juicy there will be copies everywhere."

Schmidt added, "Well, we actually think privacy is pretty important. We’re actually making it possible for you to know what kind of stuff we have on you and actually delete a whole bunch of it."

Sullivan: "Google doesn’t get enough credit for this. It rolled out a 'Privacy Dashboard' last year (see Google Dashboard Offers New Privacy Controls) to make it easier for people to see what data that Google has collected and manage or delete it."

Also, jokes

Of course, much of the interview was taken up with jokes at Google's expense.

Colbert quipped, "Now, by the way, why don’t I get more hits when I put in 'tall women carry heavy things?' Can you get on that? Can you do anything about that?"

Colbert also said: "At what point will Google’s algorithm become self-aware and turn on its masters?" Schmidt responded: "Hopefully not in our lifetimes."

Colbert questioned Google's famous motto, "Don't be evil." The host said, "Right now your stock price is $513 a share. How low will that have to go before you say that’s it, we’re going with evil?" Sullivan points to a 2007 article: "14 'Is Google Evil?' Tipping Points Since 2001."

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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