To sum up 2013 take this untold tale concerning prime minister David Cameron and Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
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The setting – the theme for 2013 – is disillusion. Cameron and his Conservative compadres had offered the electorate transparency and accountability. But their plan would in effect decrease it. They meant to apply it only to the public sector. And then only to help private companies get a grab-hold on public markets. Similarly, they promised to make people with power more accountable. But they only meant public sector people – not the private companies they sought to do public work. And not themselves. So transparency and accountability would decrease under the Conservative coalition. Because it was shrinking the bits it made transparent, and growing private business, whose business remained private.
Cameron got kudos for this plan from Google’s billionaire chairman Eric Schmidt. But they promised something more inspiring than accountability merely for the sake of markets. Theirs was the internet politics. You will know its credo if you have been determined enough to root out those now deleted Conservative election speeches: information liberation equals people power.
Cameron and chancellor George Osborne had spelled it out at Google conferences. Schmidt underlined the point in a keynote at the 2006 Conservative Party conference.
And how the Conservatives chortled when Schmidt indulged them with that speech, titled “Politicians and Lie Detectors”. In five years time, he said, the internet would be so clever it would tell you when politicians were lying.
But Schmidt got it wrong. Not simply because seven years later the Conservatives deleted the speeches you would need to read to see if they had been lying or not. But because Schmidt’s ‘Lie Detectors’ speech can’t be found on the internet either.
Computer Weekly spent hours looking for it. It wasn’t there. Google never published it at all. It was determinedly withheld.
This is important because while Schmidt’s backing lent the Conservative transparency pitch a vital air of credibility, his corporation has continued to be a substantial partner in the Conservative-led coalition government.
After Cameron and Osborne appointed Schmidt as an advisor, they put £50m and considerable political gusto into the Google-backed “Tech City” – a shoal of web and design startups located around the London headquarters of various US tech giants they billed as the UK’s answer to silicon valley, instead of putting it somewhere like Bletchley and Milton Keynes, which sit at the centre the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, an extension of the famous Silicon Fen cluster of high-tech software and biotech startups that was once earmarked as the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.
Google meanwhile paid 0.09 per cent tax on its UK earnings. Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said in April this was a conflict of interest that warranted striking Schmidt off the Business Advisory Group where he sits as government advisor. Schmidt stayed. He has meanwhile been putting his weight behind the prime minister’s personal political initiatives.
It is not possible to know what advice Schmidt has given the prime minister. The Business Advisory Group meets in secret. It is convened by the chancellor and chaired by the prime minister. Yet the Treasury says it won’t publish the group’s meeting agendas and minutes because transparency might discourage members from giving frank advice.
There is another reason why the whereabouts of Schmidt’s ‘Lie Detectors’ speech is important. That is the same reason the deleted Tory speeches are important: they are people power pledges people can’t read.
Google may not have deleted Schmidt’s lie detector speech like the Tories did theirs. But that is because it never published it in the first place.
It was unusual for either a Tory conference speech or a Google speech not to be published. And though it may be just one speech, it was the moment Google gave chorus to the party that went on to treat it so favourably in power. In the reckoning of transparency and accountability in the internet age, its as rum as they come.
Now if you were the sort of person this transparency and accountability was supposed to benefit, you might reasonably look to read the speech that sealed the Google / Conservative alliance. You would expect to find it by simply rat-a-tat-tatting for it in Google.
Slough of despond
So you would have done a Google search on something like >>’eric schmidt’ speech transcript ‘conservative party’ conference<<. And you might then have wasted a lot of time running up dead-end roads before you would accept it wasn’t there.
Google’s YouTube website, for example, has a tantalising, 1:57 minute clip of Schmidt’s speech. It doesn’t have the whole speech. But there are a couple of articles The Guardian newspaper wrote about it at the time. They feature a 2:50 minute version of the same clip you already saw on YouTube. But they don’t have the whole speech.
The Guardian links to a George Osborne speech that followed Schmidt’s keynote. But that is one of those the Conservatives deleted. If Osborne’s speech was once there you might have found Schmidt’s in the same place?
So you would look the Conservative website up on the Internet Archive, and trudge the records for the page where Schmidt’s speech might have been published on 3 October 2006. And you would see the Conservative Party published three speeches from their conference on that day. But not Schmidt’s.
Having come this far, you might trudge further through the Archive to see if Schmidt featured in any Conservative Party press releases at the time. But the idiosyncrasies of the archived web mean you can’t actually reach any notices nearer than a week after the conference. The press release archive is blocked by an out-of-date press registration form. The public news section didn’t mention Schmidt in October 2006.
Likewise, you might try different search terms or engines. You might chance upon the odd contemporary report. You might find with a tiny bit more of Schmidt’s speech.
“The internet.. will expose them to online ‘truth predictor’ tests and affect the outcome of general elections,” one reports Schmidt saying. “Imagine being able to check instantly whether or not statements made by politicians were correct.”
Yes, just imagine. You won’t find the transparency speech though. There’s a blog by Tom Watson, a Labour MP, about Schmidt’s appointment as Cameron’s economic advisor in February 2009. Wikipedia links to anthologies of Schmidt speeches: back to The Guardian with no luck; over to The New York Times to no end.
Google itself has an archive of press statements going back to 2001. But you can’t get to Schmidt’s statements on its US website if you are logged in to Google from the UK. You have to log out and pretend to be someone else to check on Google’s accountability pledge. It uses your login to control what you see on the internet.
But Google must have published it somewhere. Publishing speeches was simply the sort of thing Google did in those days. The Archive records that Google made 21 press releases in October 2006. But none for Schmidt.
Google did publish various Schmidt speeches and interviews in 2006. But not his Conservative election speech. Its transparency seemed unambiguous. But it was selective. This was not the internet politics – the transparent society.
That’s what it’s like for plebs using Google to hold politicians to account in 2013, seven years after Schmidt’s ‘Lie Detectors’ speech.
Yet journalists have one more avenue of enquiry not normally available to other plebs: the press office. It doesn’t usually lead anywhere. But it can take less time to get a negative than other routes.
Two Google press spokespeople looked into the matter after Computer Weekly made enquiries. Each referred it upstairs and looked themselves. They said it did not exist. They said the only available relic was that clip on The Guardian and YouTube websites.
“Google do not keep a record of executives’ speeches,” said one of the Google spokesmen after looking into it over a number of days last week.