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Executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, left, looks at a computer with Jennifer Flanagan, Actua CEO, and students Daniel Hocevar, and Michael Pawlyshyn during Codemakers, a project led by Actua and supported with a $1.5 million grant from Google, in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.Hannah Yoon

Eric Schmidt has a message for Canada's government: Back off and let consumers decide how they want to watch television.

On his first visit to Canada, one of Google's most powerful executives waded into the contentious debate over regulation of Internet services as CRTC hearings wrap up in Ottawa that could lead to new broadcasting rules. He told The Globe and Mail in an interview that governments should stop trying to protect existing industries from innovative new startups.

"I think the evidence is that governments around the world are heavily influenced by both political matters, but also incumbency in one form or another," said Mr. Schmidt, the company's executive chairman. "We're taking the position that governments need to ultimately serve their citizens by giving the citizens choices, and the market will sort it out."

It is, in many ways, the defining opinion not just of Mr. Schmidt, but of Silicon Valley, whose myriad startups are challenging traditional business models in a variety of industries – from taxis to television. Google is perhaps the most influential among several tech industry companies – including Netflix and transportation startup Uber – that vocally oppose what they say are government efforts to protect out-of-touch incumbents.

Mr. Schmidt arrived in Toronto this week to promote How Google Works, a new book he has co-written, just days after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission sharply rebuked both Netflix and Google for refusing its order to provide its hearings on the future of television in Canada with information on how many Canadians watch services such as the video-sharing website YouTube.

"Our general policy is we try to work with governments on these sorts of things," Mr. Schmidt said.

"Often they have regulations and we can sort of convince them that it does apply or it doesn't apply. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube [in Canada] is a huge success."

Google has given no indication that it will comply with the CRTC order, even after the regulator decided to punish it and Netflix by striking both companies' testimony from the record of the hearings. The move means the companies' views on what the CRTC should recommend in its report will not be considered.

Google's refusal to hand over the information is in keeping with its desire to avoid anything that could lead to regulations, which it believes tend to hinder innovation rather than help it. Google's position is that if government leaves all companies alone to compete purely on the merits of the products and services they offer, consumers have the final say.

There is no shortage of governments that do not agree. In China, virtually all Google sites are inaccessible (part of a sprawling government censorship effort).

Mr. Schmidt said the company is in talks with the government there about a solution.

"I've spent some time talking to the Chinese government, but I'd rather not talk about any of the specifics," he said. "But we're in no position where we're going to make any announcements or anything like that. I think at the moment it's fair to say Google is blocked in China, that blockage is from the Chinese government, and they clearly know that they're doing it."

In the United States, the company is forced in some cases to hand over customer information to law enforcement agencies but prohibited from telling the customer.

In Canada and elsewhere, Google has also raised the ire of privacy watchdogs for how it collects and stores data. In Europe, a court recently ruled that Google must remove some links from search results about people if the individuals request it. The case centred on what has become known as "the right to be forgotten," and Google has fought vehemently against it.

"We don't like this … because it puts us in the position of being the decider of something that should be decided by society as a whole," Mr. Schmidt said.

For a decade, Mr. Schmidt was charged with keeping one of the world's fastest-growing companies from doing anything too reckless – supervising co-founders still in their 20s. As CEO of Google, he became one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the corporate world.

But now that the 20-something co-founders are in their 40s, Mr. Schmidt has a new role. As executive chairman, he is the public face of the company in all external matters, the top liaison in Google's dealings with governments.

In that capacity, he has become one of the most powerful evangelists for the idea that the health of a country's startup sector eventually predicts the health of its economy at large.

"The Canadian government and the key leaders need to understand that job growth and the economic growth of Canada is completely dependent upon all those young startups," he said. "Getting them nurtured, getting them happy, giving them global markets and giving them what they need to build global platforms."

Follow Omar El Akkad on Twitter: @omarelakkadOpens in a new window

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