Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, tried to use his position to suppress details of an embarrassing political donation he made, ordering that details be removed from the internet giant's search engine results, it was claimed yesterday.
The accusation comes in a forthcoming book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, by technology journalist Steven Levy, who has been given unprecedented access to Google's employees over the past three years to research an "authorised biography" of the company.
Details of Mr Schmidt's attempt to manipulate Google results is based on a claim by Denise Griffin, who was employed as the company's first customer-support manager. While Ms Griffin patiently explained to all correspondents that Google was committed to the principle of making all information on the web equally available, she faced a major challenge when Mr Schmidt's secretary passed on a request to remove some information about him from search results. "Principles always make sense – until it is personal," she told Mr Levy.
The incident happened very early on in Mr Schmidt's tenure, perhaps in 2001. When Ms Griffin "freaked out" and told her boss, Sheryl Sandberg, who is now Facebook's chief operating officer, Mr Schmidt was told in no uncertain terms that he couldn't have his way.
The revelations about Mr Schmidt's gaffe caused an internet storm yesterday, and acquired extra piquancy because of rumours in Washington which suggest the Google boss is being wooed by the White House for the role of Secretary of Commerce. President Barack Obama wants to put a business-friendly face on his administration after its drubbing in last November's elections, and he has repeatedly tapped Mr Schmidt in the past as an adviser on economic policy and technology issues.
"The point of the anecdote is not that there is some secret donation that Eric is trying to stifle," Mr Levy said, "but how Google established its principles. He was in pretty much the same position as everybody else – except that he was the CEO. It was before he maybe had a chance to learn Google's policies, during what were a rough first couple of years for him. Larry and Sergey [Messrs Page and Brin, Google's founders] were not eager to have someone come in over them to run the company, but they got used to it and Eric got used to the company."
Mr Schmidt has often given money to politicians' campaigns, almost always to Democrats, according to published records going back to the mid-Nineties. In 1999, however, he donated $1,000 to George Bush's election campaign, as well as to Al Gore's presidential effort.
Last night, a Google spokesman said Mr Schmidt denies that the incident took place. This weekend is Mr Schmidt's last as chief executive of the company. A decade after Google's early investors ordered Mr Page and Mr Brin to hire a more experienced Silicon Valley executive to run the search engine company they founded in 1998, Mr Page is taking back responsibility for day-to-day management.If he does not leave for Washington, Mr Schmidt will stay on with the title of chairman and a role lobbying for Google around the world. Governments are clamouring to impose new privacy restrictions and other anti-monopoly rules on the company.