Transcript: Stephen Colbert Interviews Google’s Eric Schmidt On The Colbert Report

Google's Eric Schmidt on The Colbert Report

Last night, The Colbert Report featured Stephen Colbert interviewing Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt. Colbert got in some expected digs (four years to decide they didn’t like Chinese laws?), jokingly asks when the computer algorithm will take over and touches on some serious issues, such as how much Google remembers.

Schmidt, I’d say, held his own pretty well and dodges a question on whether there’s anything about him that he wouldn’t want found on Google. A transcript of the interview is below, with the video of the exchange after that.

Colbert:

My guest tonight is the CEO of Google. At least that’s what it said when I looked him up on Bing. Please welcome Eric Schmidt.

[Some turnabout here. Earlier this year, Colbert did a product placement segment for Bing, where he started out saying, "Bing is a great web site for doing internet searches. I know that, because I Googled it."]

Hey Mr. Schmidt, thanks for coming on. Lovely to see you. I get to put another notch in my billionaire belt. Wonderful to meet you. Now sir, you are the head of Google, which is fast becoming one of the biggest, most important companies in America.

Schmidt:

Thank you.

Colbert:

Now, hey, I didn’t do it. You guys did it. You and your algorithms.

Schmidt:

Yes.

Colbert:

Right, it’s an algorithm. That you guys make your cash by doing essentially data mining on what we Americans care about, right?

Schmidt:

Not true.

Colbert:

Not true? I’m going to go with my explanation.

But you do know things about Americans that we, maybe when we were children, didn’t think people would know about us. Our likes, our dislikes, are codified, regionally, if not individually, correct?

Schmidt:

Well, it’s true that we see your searches, but we forget them after a while.

[Unless you've elected to opt-in to Google Web History. Then Google will forget nothing until you explicitly tell it to.]

Colbert:

Aha. And I’m supposed to trust you on that.

Schmidt:

Not only do you have to, but it’s the law in a lot of countries.

[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.]

Colbert:

For you to forget?

Schmidt:

Yes.

Colbert:

OK

Schmidt:

You can remember.

Colbert:

But, I guess my point is, I try not to, they’re pretty disturbing.

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?

Schmidt:

Is that a site you’re trying to promote?

Colbert:

No, just general interest. No ads come up for that!

Schmidt:

You need to work to get more content…

Colbert:

OK, fantastic…

Schmidt

…in that area.

Colbert:

So, you wouldn’t call that data mining?

Schmidt:

No, we actually don’t do data mining. What we do is we go….

Colbert:

… or data mining [Colbert earlier pronounced it "dah-ta mining" and now jokes "day-ta mining]. Either one, dah-ta or day-ta, and I don’t want to fight.

Schmidt:

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.

[PageRank is actually only one of about 200 factors that Google says are in its ranking algorithm. What are some of those other factors? Got another video and transcript for you on that: Schmidt: Listing Google’s 200 Ranking Factors Would Reveal Business Secrets.]

Colbert:

And this algorithm changed the way search has happened, about how long ago, 12 years ago?

Schmidt:

About 10 years ago.

Colbert:

At what point will Google’s algorithm become self-aware and turn on its masters?

["Total self-awareness" is actually on the "Google Master Plan" whiteboard that once graced a lobby at Google, a board that allowed anyone to write anything on it. It had plenty of jokes.]

Schmidt:

Hopefully not in our lifetimes.

Colbert:

OK.

Schmidt:

It turns out that this algorithm is pretty straight-forward. It deals with really large things. Enormous numbers of information, billions and billions, what computers are good for. Humans aren’t very good at that.

Colbert:

Humans aren’t very good.

Schmidt:

Humans are not very good…

Colbert:

Computers, computers, that’s why computers will eventually take over.

Schmidt:

Humans are not very good at dealing with billions of things, whereas computers are. And computers are not very good at the kind of thinking that we all do.

Colbert:

Chinese are great at dealing with billions of things. Billions of other people, right?
Now you guys pulled out of China. Why’d you do that?

Schmidt:

Well, we didn’t like their laws.

[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.]

Colbert:

OK. Immediately didn’t like their laws? How long did it take you to not like their laws?

Schmidt:

About four years.

Colbert:

About four years. You were under the yoke of communist China for four years. How did you get out. Did you tunnel your way?

Schmidt:

No, we actually moved. There’s two, there’s one China, basically there’s Hong Kong and mainland China, one country, two systems. We like the Hong Kong system better.

[Previously, Google China operated off Google.cn, a mainland China domain. People visiting that site now see an image, which if clicked, takes them to Google.hk, a Hong Kong-administered domain. Google's gamble that this would work paid off, and China recently renewed its business license.]

Colbert:

Now you famously said, and I completely support this, the idea that some day, young people instead of having privacy, for the things that they put up on Facebook, being able to expunge that, since once it’s up there, it exists forever, that one day they’ll just erase their histories and change their names, and they’ll be scot free.

[Colbert did one of his "The Word" segments about this at the end of August, which is well worth watching. A link is at the end of this transcript.]

Schmidt:

It was a joke.

Colbert:

Stares in silence.

Schmidt:

And it just wasn’t very good.

Colbert:

I guess that’s too hip for the room.

Schmidt:

It just wasn’t a very good joke.

[Schmidt's "joke" actually came within a serious news article at the Wall Street Journal on August 14 of this year, which said:

"He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."
In early September, Schmidt began saying that statement was a joke. From TechCrunch, which translated a report of Schmidt speaking on the subject in Berlin:

"I was making a joke when I was saying that, and everybody who was present burst into laughter."

Ironically, in the same speech where he said he was joking, he also gave another soundbite that I think will haunt him:

"We can suggest what you should do next, what you care about .... We know where you are, we know the things that you like."

Our coverage of that speech is here, plus you can read TechCrunch's here. In full context, it's not as worrisome as it sounds -- watch for yourself here. The quote begins around 48:45 into the speech.]

Colbert:

I was all for it, because I think it would be very enticing as an employer to go, “You have no history and you changed your name yesterday. Welcome aboard.”

Schmidt:

The serious goal is just remember when you post something that the computers remember forever.

Colbert:

Whose computers? Your computers?

Schmidt:

Well, it’s actually on the web. Google just collects it. It’s all out there on the web somewhere.

Colbert:

You just collect it.

Schmidt:

We collect it…

Colbert:

Where are your computers?

Schmidt:

They’re all over the world. And if it’s really juicy, there will be copies everywhere.

Colbert [Stares in silence for a moment. Then asks:]

Is there anything you don’t want people to know about you.

Schmidt:

Well, everybody has privacy.

Colbert:

Not me, my life’s an open book.

Schmidt:

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.

[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.]

Colbert:

Your company, your famously, your motto is, uh…

Schmidt:

Don’t be evil.

Colbert:

Don’t be evil. 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.

Schmidt:

Well, we were not…

Colbert:

You’ll never be evil, not even a little bit?

Schmidt:

No, we were not evil when we had no stock price….

[14 "Is Google Evil?" Tipping Points Since 2001 covers various ways outsiders have viewed Google as being evil, and that list is through 2007. It also provides more background on how Google's motto got started. Since that list was created, there's more that can be added where outsiders might consider Google to be doing evil.

That article also covers how Google itself knew going into China was evil, just not as evil as staying out. The company made an "evil scale," in fact. Schmidt was quoted as saying in 2006: "We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil."]

Colbert

Hey, all men are sinners.

Schmidt:

It’s a company.

Colbert:

Companies are legally people. Welcome to America.

Schmidt:

The company was founded on a basic principle, not to be evil and to do the right thing, to make the world a better place. And that survives all of us. It’s our principle that we operate the company by.

Colbert:

Alright. Could you help me erase my browser history?

Schmidt:

I would encourage it.

Colbert:

You have been checking my searches.

Here’s the video from Comedy Central:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Eric Schmidt
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Here’s the earlier video of Colbert talking about Schmidt’s comment on everyone being able to have the right to change their name on becoming an adult. The video also covers another Schmidt remark, on how if people are worried that people might find out something about them, maybe they shouldn’t be doing some things in the first place:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Control-Self-Delete
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Sadly, Colbert didn’t ask about his rise and fall about being the Greatest Living American on Google. The stories below have more on that:

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: Employees | Google: Parodies | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://2helixtech.com matthiaswh

    Thanks for the coverage, Danny. Any time I get to watch funny videos at work without feeling guilty is fine by me.

    I don’t normally watch the Colbert Report, but this was good. At first I was wondering if Eric Schmidt has a sense of humor at all. He seemed to be taking the conversation a little too seriously throughout most of it. I don’t know if that’s how the show normally goes, or if it’s just him being a typical billionaire CEO. Still pretty funny.

    Just an observation, it’s a little hard to pick out your commentary on the transcript with just italics.

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