Google founders step back... but remain in control

Omar Oakes
Omar Oakes

Larry Page and Sergey Brin have a stellar track record in accumulating wealth and power while trying to avoid accountability.

Last night, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced that they were leaving their respective roles at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai will become chief executive of Alphabet, succeeding Page, while Brin is stepping down as president of Alphabet.

Page and Brin said: "With Alphabet now well-established… it's the natural time to simplify our management structure. We've never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there's a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a president."

However, Page and Brin will remain on Google’s board and are not selling their founder stock, so the pair will retain ultimate control over the company’s major decisions. 

These decisions are of crucial importance to the advertising industry, since Google has become by far the world’s biggest advertising company (its ad revenue for the most recent quarter was $33bn – the same amount as the entire UK ad market is forecast to generate this year).  

And yet the word "advertising" was not mentioned once in Page and Brin’s letter yesterday, nor were the crucial issues facing the digital ad industry, such as internet users’ data privacy and ad fraud.

But then we already know what they think.

About the right to be forgotten – a legal cornerstone of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that prohibits companies from processing data without a good reason – Brin flippantly said in 2014: "I wish we could just forget the ruling." Reporters characterised him as "joking" and "dismissive".  

That same month, Page then sought to defend Google’s awesome power to hold and use data by suggesting that we should trust Google more than democratically elected governments. 

He said: "In general, having the data present in companies like Google is better than having it in the government with no due process to get that data, because we obviously care about our reputation. I’m not sure the government cares about that as much."

And yet the biggest critics of Larry and Sergey have been Larry and Sergey. In their milestone 1998 paper that unveiled their genius idea for creating Google, "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine", they foresaw how being an advertising company and a supposed neutral search platform would come into conflict.

They said: "We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers."

Fast-forward to 2019 and there have been several multibillion fines levied against Google for anti-competitive practices. 

In 2019, it was fined €1.49bn (£1.28bn) for "abusive practices" in its AdSense for Search platform by blocking rivals Microsoft and Yahoo from selling ads in Google search results pages.

This followed a $5bn fine for anti-competitive behaviors associated with its Android mobile operating system in summer 2018 and another €2.42bn fine for ecommerce violations in 2017.

Perhaps further fines and regulation will be heading Google’s way in the US next year when the California Consumer Privacy Act comes into force in January and a Democrat is elected president (as seems increasingly likely) in November. Page and Brin would have seen Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s much-lampooned recent appearance before Congress and perhaps think it’s the right time to take a step back into the shadows.

In reality, the co-founders have been out of the limelight for quite some time, which is how they appear to like it. But that they will not still ultimately call the shots, or that their attitude towards accountability and business ethics has changed, is unlikely.

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