Speaking at a conference in South Korea, Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive officer of Google, ducked the question of whether his company's dominance of internet search may ultimately distort democratic gains from improved information access. But he promised governments will be held to account more than ever before.
"Politicians will be forced to be more transparent," Schmidt said, responding to a question from an attendee at the Seoul Digital Forum. Video of Schmidt's remarks was carried live on the Internet.
"More people looking at an idea results in a better outcome," Schmidt said, calling the internet a "powerful force for democracy."
He did not address the central role that Google plays in this process, but said the company is one among many that offer tools to access information online.
While Schmidt preaches the value of greater information access for democracy, Google hasn't always been so free with information about itself. Relative to many of its competitors, the company has earned a reputation for carefully managing the release of information about its activities and executives, even as it compiles reams of personal information about its users.
In 2005, Google banned its executives from speaking with reporters from News.com for one year following the publication of a story that detailed information about Schmidt to illustrate the kind of personal data that's available online. Among the details reported in the story were the value of Schmidt's Google stock transactions and his attendance at a political fund raiser for Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign.
After receiving widespread criticism for its decision, Google relented and ended the ban.
Even outside its own activities, Google's support for the free flow of information is not absolute. Where governments discourage the free flow of information, Google has defended its right to censor search results. Earlier this month, the company's top executives defeated a shareholder resolution that would have required the company to stop proactively censoring search results, while permitting the company to engage in censorship when legally required to do so.
This approach to censorship, and the amount of personal data that Google collects, are a source of concern in some quarters, including among privacy advocates.
Worries about Google's reach and the amount of information it gathers about its users spurred the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to open an investigation into the company's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick. That investigation was prompted by a privacy complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, the Centre for Digital Democracy, and the US Public Interest Research Group.
Addressing the importance of privacy in Seoul, Schmidt said ultimate control over personal information still rested with users. "Google is careful to make everything a user choice," he said, noting users who want to protect their personal information can choose not to use Google's services.
For users who opt to share their data with Google, Schmidt promised the company does not hold on to this information indefinitely. "We only retain this information for a specific amount of time," he said, without saying how long such data is stored.