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At Shareholders' Meeting Google’s Execs Cite Privacy When It Suits Them

I have just returned from my annual pilgrimage to Mountain View, CA, to ask questions at the annual Google Shareholders’ meeting. This year I focused on privacy and safety issues involving the Internet giant’s robot cars.

Three quick takeaways — besides the fact that Google’s executives know who we are:  Sergey Brin didn’t seem to understand why I own Google stock; if you hope your mug will show up in the video of the meeting, you’d best be the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Google’s executives cite privacy concerns when it suits their purposes.

You’re allowed two questions if you’re a shareholder and get recognized by the chairman.  I always make a point of being one of the first in line by grabbing an aisle seat and sitting near a microphone. Check out the video.

Here’s what I asked:

1. “Would you be willing to protect driverless car users’ privacy in the future and commit today to using the information gathered by driverless cars only for operating the vehicles and not for other purposes such as marketing?”

2. “A Google spokesman called the crashes minor and said Google’s cars weren’t at fault, of course that’s what any driver says when they’re in an accident, ‘oh it’s not my fault.’ But we have to take your word for it and don’t really know what happened because Google hasn’t released the actual accident reports. Will you release the reports so the public knows what went wrong and will you commit to making all future accident reports public?”

David Drummond, Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer brushed aside the privacy concerns I’d raised involving the operators of robot cars. He went on to state that any restrictions, “Would in a lot of ways reduce innovation and our ability to deliver a great consumer product.”

After my second question CEO Larry Page invited his co-founder Sergey Brin on stage to answer the question about releasing the accident reports. Brin started off by wondering why I am Google stockholder. I think I made it clear, “Why wouldn’t I be?  I get to come and speak and ask you questions and I’ve made money on my investment …”

I bantered a bit about taking off my a tie, a reference to both Drummond and Chairman Eric Schmidt having earlier made a point of being tieless this year in keeping with Silicon Valley’s dress code. Schmidt then told Brin to actually answer my question.

Brin gave a rambling response about the accident reports saying “It’s basically the summary we’ve already given you. I suppose we could give more detail, and we’re open to that.”  He expressed the concern that releasing the reports would reveal the names of the other vehicles’ drivers, invading their privacy.

I don’t have a problem redacting the other drivers’ names, but we need the full details of the crashes — when, where and exactly what happened.  One of the most difficult challenges facing driverless vehicles is how the robot cars interact with human drivers.  It looks, for instance, like a trend may be emerging that the robot cars are likely to be rear-ended.  That could mean they are stopping more quickly or behaving in other ways that humans don’t expect.  The public needs to know what went wrong and why.

What struck me, though, was the Google executives’ ability to brush off privacy concerns when that suited their purposes, but to cite them when that was more convenient.  An important point to remember is that Google is in the business of sucking up as much data about us it can and then “monetizing” it. You can be sure the Internet giant will attempt that with all the data gathered by the robot cars.

And, in case you’re puzzled by my reference to the Rev. Jackson, let me explain.  He came to last year’s meeting to raise important concerns about the lack of people of color at Google and in the rest of the tech industry.  Last year he won the concession that Google would release reports of the ethnic makeup of its workforce.  He was back this year to push harder and made important points.

I think Google executives sincerely want to work on the issue.  One thing is absolutely clear: at the very least they want to appear concerned.  That’s why both this year and last year the Rev. Jackson got called on first during the shareholder question-and-answer session and was the only questioner whose image appeared in the video of the meeting. You just hear the voices of the rest of us.

I do hope Brin finally understands why I own Google  stock.  Consumer Watchdog is a public interest group that is concerned about how a gargantuan company impacts the public. By owning a few shares I get to ask important questions about Google’s policies.  And so, Larry, Sergey and Eric, you can count on this: I’ll be back next year.