Biodiversity. Workplace diversity. Religion. Wind turbines. Self-driving car crashes. Science fiction. Political lobbying. And yes, even the Internet.
Wednesday morning was Google’s annual shareholder meeting, which is also a perennial opportunity for activists and vocal shareholders to pick the brains of some of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley: Google CEO Larry Page, co-founder Sergey Brin and Chairman Eric Schmidt, along with Google’s chief legal and public policy officer, David Drummond.
The star activist of the morning was civil rights legend the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who stood up — as he has before — to press Google and the tech world to improve its workforce diversity. But the most unusual question came from a recent UC Berkeley law graduate and Google investor “since undergrad” who asked about the long-term future the company’s leaders have in mind for us in the coming 50 or 100 or 1,000 years, and if it will look more like “Wall-E,” with its pampered, helpless humans, or the “Matrix,” or “something horrible like that.”
Page started out by mentioning how he recently went to see the new Disney movie “Tomorrowland,” hoping to find a rare sci-fi film with a positive version of the future. He seemed to agree with critics that it wasn’t very good. Then he got philosophical.
“It’s very hard to find positive views of the future in general. I think that’s been true for a long time. So don’t let that get you down,” he said. “Any measure you make of the world, it’s getting better. Poverty, empowerment, all the issues that Rev. Jackson talked about.”
“Everything’s getting better, in general. In fact, quite a bit. We should be optimists,” added Page, “and be excited about all the things we’re building and contributing to the world. It’s working.”
Other highlights from the meeting included:
— Google investors voted the way they were expected to, re-electing the current board and rejecting five stockholder proposals that would have required the company to reveal more details about its political lobbying expenditures, renewable energy expenditures, and other causes.
— Sergey Brin stood on the sidelines, letting Page and Drummond answer questions, until a frequent Google critic, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, asked when the company would disclose the confidential California DMV reports of its self-driving car crashes. First, Brin was dismissive, saying he was “surprised” and “puzzled” that Simpson was a shareholder given his constant criticism of the company. Later, with some nudging from Schmidt, he answered the question. “We don’t want to release those details because it is a privacy issue” for the drivers involved, Brin said, adding, “I suppose we could give more detail, and we’re open to that … the reports you’re asking for basically ask us to say what we’ve already summarized.” Brin also admitted that another robot car was rear-ended in the past week.
— As he has before, Rev. Jackson mixed praise of Google’s workforce diversity campaign ($150 million committed by the company this year) with sharp criticism. “You’ve not moved the needle on representation very much,” he said, a reference to Google’s latest self-report card released earlier this week. Drummond said it’s a “long struggle” and welcomed the pressure. Jackson also asked Google to bring back to America some of the billions of dollars it has parked overseas. Schmidt said the tax repatriation issue was complicated by federal policy. “Maybe we should do it together,” Jackson retorted.
— “Wind sucks,” said stockholder, gadfly and retired engineer Shelton Ehrlich, speaking of the wind farms on the Altamont Pass near Livermore, where Google made a power purchase agreement several months ago to build new turbines to power the Google campus. Ehrlich had proposed that the company do more to explain its renewable energy investments to investors, which investors rejected by voting against the proposal Wednesday.
— “I’d like to see a product called Muslim Hug,” said another investor who said he flew up from Southern California to make the suggestion for a product that could extinguish Shiite-Sunni rivalries and other religious conflicts. Drummond responded: “I don’t know how easy it’ll be to develop a spiritual improvement product,” but he said the company was working on ways to get YouTube and other platforms to promote global dialogue.
— Asked about competing with Apple, Schmidt said: “Apple is both a partner and a competitor. Apple and Google today have a huge business around search … We also compete in the toughest competition I think that there’s ever been in the computer industry, which is in the mobile phone space. The incredible improvements you’re seeing in smartphones, in terms of capability, apps and so forth, in my view is a result of that brutal capitalistic competition that has driven prices down.”
— “The Web is not dead, but apps are taking a lot of our attention,” said Schmidt, who also gave a wide-ranging, inspirational speech to investors about Google’s accomplishments over the years. He echoed Page’s optimism about the world, but more directly tied it to the company’s business model: “This is not some luxury product for an elite,” he said. “These techniques and algorithms will make everyone in the world much smarter.” And also: “We have a healthy disregard for the impossible. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but let me tell you that when the ideas work, they change the world.” Schmidt’s talk, and a short movie that followed, complemented an essay by Brin filed with the SEC earlier on Wednesday explaining to cost-conscious investors why Google is researching so many ambitious “moonshot” projects.
— Google Photos, the new smart photo-sorting product introduced at Google’s I/O developer conference last week, is the “most profound change in photo and photo organization in the history of photos and photo organization,” Schmidt boasted.
— Schmidt managed to avoid any direct questions about his and fellow executive Omid Kordestani’s high compensation, despite an unusual challenge from prominent proxy adviser ISS that asked investors to withhold votes on the three Google board members — John Doerr, Paul Otellini and Ram Shriram — who sit on a compensation committee. The three were all re-elected, but a preliminary vote breakdown showed that a significant number of investors withheld votes or did not vote for them. Doerr got 84 percent of the vote for his uncontested seat, Otellini got 85 percent and Shriram 86 percent, compared to more than 99 percent for Page, Brin and other board members who were not a target of the protest campaign.
— After the meeting closed, I ran into Schmidt on his way to a waiting limousine. Would he take any follow-up questions from a reporter? “Nope, not a chance,” he said.