Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says tech companies can regulate themselves

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Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a new interview rejected the notion that Capitol Hill has a role to play in regulating big tech companies, breaking with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent willingness to work with lawmakers.

“The problem is if you write a rule, inevitably, you fix the solution on a specific solution, but the technology moves so quickly,” Schmidt says.

“It’s generally better to let the tech companies do these things,” he adds.

Schmidt, who ran Google from 2001 to 2011, acknowledged that over his tenure the company did not understand the scale or severity of problems originating from its products. But since then, the company has addressed the issues, he said.

“Our response has, in my view, been very strong,” he said. “Today, we have all sorts of software that enforces policies of one kind or another. And people complain about the rules, but the fact of the matter is the rules are published.”

Last month, the European Union fined Google 1.5 billion euros, or about $1.7 billion, for violating antitrust laws by requiring companies to abide by unfair terms if they used its search bar on their websites in Europe. It was the third fine against Google by the European Union since 2017.

Schmidt made the remarks about regulation to Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in a conversation that aired on Yahoo Finance in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 16: Eric Schmidt , former chairman and CEO at GOOGLE visits Fox Business Network Studios on April 16, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 16: Eric Schmidt , former chairman and CEO at GOOGLE visits Fox Business Network Studios on April 16, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Hired as CEO by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Schmidt grew Google from a startup to a multinational tech giant. Under his tenure, the company extended its offerings beyond search through the acquisition of YouTube and the development of the Android mobile operating system, among other initiatives. From 2011 to 2017, Schmidt served as the Executive Chairman at Google and its parent company Alphabet.

Schmidt remains a technical adviser to the board of Alphabet.

On Tuesday, Schmidt released a book entitled “Trillion Dollar Coach,” which chronicles the life and management advice of famed executive coach Bill Campbell. The book is co-authored by Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle, former colleagues of Schmidt at Google.

‘There will continue to be surprises’

The comments from Schmidt contrast with those made by Zuckerberg in a Washington Post op-ed late last month, which suggested a willingness to work with regulators. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own,” Zuckerberg wrote.

In an interview with Recode last week, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heralded a “new era” for tech regulation.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate, has called for breaking up tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced a bill last Wednesday that seeks to protect people’s privacy online. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) introduced a separate bill that would prevent online companies from deceiving users in an effort to persuade them to hand over their data.

Schmidt suggested that even if Congress does pass new regulations on tech companies, issues will continue to originate on tech platforms because the sites display unpredictable human conduct. Content moderators and other employees need to ensure that users abide by the rules of a given platform, he said.

“All of these platforms that are human centric will have to have a component of them, which is...watching what the users are doing and making sure they're consistent with their terms of service and the law,” he says.

“These issues are ongoing, because these are human-based systems,” he says. “And so humans will continue to use them. They will continue to do unexpected things. There will continue to be surprises.”

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.

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