WASHINGTON--Google and Apple are supposed to be at each others' throats, but apparently Eric Schmidt still has Apple's back.
Minutes prior to testifying on Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether Google stifles competition, Google's chairman sat down at the witness table to allow himself to be photographed. As cameras clicked, Schmidt decided to open a laptop.
The computer was a MacBook Air.
One of the leaders of one of the most powerful Internet companies was about to be given the third degree by U.S. lawmakers and he's making sure that he's photographed trusting his notes or his pre-grilling Web surfing to a device made by a competitor. Was this the beltway equivalent of a shout-out? Schmidt is, after all, a former member of Apple's board.
Certainly, he wasn't going to be seen with a PC, right? Not when he dedicated some of his opening remarks to pointing out the differences between his company's business practices and those employed by Microsoft in the late 1990s. Microsoft was accused by the U.S. government back then of unfairly crushing competing Web browsers by bundling Internet Explorer into its ubiquitous operating system. On this day, Schmidt wanted to put as much distance between his company and the software maker as possible.
Here's another question that some in Washington are asking: Does Schmidt's appearance before a Senate subcommittee make it more or less likely that he will be called to testify on other matters facing the company? Members of Congress want to know whether Google threatens privacy, and others are studying whether the company has a wink-and-nod relationship with copyright violators.
A Google representative did not respond to an interview request.
In February, at a hearing held by another Senate subcommittee studying online piracy, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) not only said he was disappointed that Google didn't show but he also suggested he would use the committee's subpoena power to compel representatives to appear.
So, it's unclear whether Schmidt would agree to testify if asked. But there's no doubt Congress still has questions. According to one source with knowledge of Google's antipiracy discussions with lawmakers, at least three Senators are considering whether to submit follow-up questions to Schmidt related to intellectual property.
During Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) strayed from antitrust matters to ask Schmidt about what Google was doing to help stop intellectual-property theft.
"It's a huge issue," Schmidt said. "And it's affected our business with the content companies on whom we critically depend. So we're under great pressure to resolve this with a good technological solution. If I may add, the core problem is that you can look at a Web site and you can tell that it's copyright infringement (he snapped his fingers) just like that--the problem is a computer can't. To do it systematically is a very hard computer science problem."
Expect the U.S. government to continue pressuring Google. For more than a year, Google has tried to reach an agreement with lawmakers as well as content owners. Google said in December that it would adopt a series of antipiracy measures, including removing terms associated with piracy from appearing in Autocomplete and improving the visibility of legitimate content in Google searches. Three weeks ago, the company reported that it had made progress.
That's not far enough to satisfy the Recording Industry Association of America. Steven Marks, the RIAA's general counsel wrote in a blog post: "Google should do more to ensure that it does not place and profit from ads on sites that offer illegal content."
Bring it on
Not only was Schmidt cool under fire during the hearings, but prior to giving his testimony he left me with the impression that he might have enjoyed the challenge of responding to a high-profile examination of his company.
Hearings like this are political theater, designed by lawmakers to show the public that they are tough and are taking action. It's hard for anyone on the other end of all that posing and posturing to be persuasive. But prior to the hearing, Schmidt exuded confidence. He joked with photographers and his lawyers. He even seemed eager, and why not? He's a man who obviously takes pride in his communication skills, and what better forum to test them?
I was also impressed that Schmidt didn't sneak into or out of the hearing. Five years ago, I saw Mark Hurd, then the top executive at HP, one of Silicon Valley's oldest and most respected companies, nearly sprint out of a congressional hearing and duck out a side door. This occurred following his testimony about HP's botched spying campaign against journalists, three of whom worked for CNET.
In contrast, Schmidt stood outside the hearing room and didn't run from anyone, not reporters, not critics, not even a group of mimes, who were there to protest Google's alleged privacy abuses.
Who would have blamed him if he fled from the mimes?