At the annual meeting of Google shareholders on 8 May 2008, a motion was proposed from the floor which called for an end to the company's activities in China.
When, two years previously, the world's largest internet firm had finally started doing business with the world's most populous country, Google's bosses agreed to impose search filters at the behest of Beijing. Thus search terms such as "Tiananmen Square" or "Dalai Lama" threw up results that were either innocuous or simply censored. Many of Google's idealistic employees, let alone its users, had long been troubled by the compromise. One of the site's founders, Larry Page, voted the motion down, as did the CEO, Eric Schmidt. But Page's co-founder, Sergey Brin, abstained.
Last month, Google discovered that it had been the subject of a sophisticated attack on its computer systems, carried out by hackers in search of private data from more than 30 internet companies. Among the targets were the accounts of Chinese human rights activists; experts claimed the hack could be traced to the Chinese government or its proxies. In response, Google announced on Tuesday that it would stop censoring results on Google.cn – the Chinese version of its search engine – or, should Beijing oppose the move, cease operating in China altogether.
Google-watchers all agree that Brin was behind the decision. "He's always had an emotional tug within him, saying 'we shouldn't be making compromises'," says Ken Auletta, the author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. Brin fled the restrictions of the Soviet Union with his Jewish-Russian parents when he was six years old, and the original agreement with the Chinese regime was reportedly the source of disagreements between him and Schmidt. According to The Wall Street Journal, the business-brained CEO maintained that engagement with China, even on Beijing's terms, was the only way to encourage openness; but by the end of 2009, Brin believed that they had tried long and hard enough, and it was time to take a stand. Tuesday's official Google blog entry announcing its "new approach to China" was signed by the firm's chief legal officer. But it is Brin whose conscience has always kept the company cognisant of its famous motto "Don't Be Evil".
Brin was born in Moscow in August 1973, to parents whose ambitions had been thwarted by the state. His father, Michael, was an aspiring astronomer – but the communist party barred Jews from studying physics or astronomy. He became a mathematician, and even then was forced to take more challenging exams than his non-Jewish peers to gain entry to university. He passed, as did Eugenia – later his wife, and Sergey's mother. The family lived with Michael's mother in a small, three-room apartment in Moscow but, after meeting Western delegates at a Warsaw maths conference in 1977, Michael decided his future lay beyond the borders of the USSR.
After applying for an exit visa, Sergey's father was fired from his job, so in the long months before the Brins were at last given permission to leave the country, he taught his young son computer programming. When the family fetched up in Maryland in 1979, he continued to supplement Sergey's schooling with home lessons in maths and Russian. Eleven years later, just before Sergey enrolled on a computer science degree at the University of Maryland, the pair returned to the Soviet Union on an exchange programme for gifted young maths students. Mark Malseed, co-author of The Google Story, writes that one day, during a tour of a sanatorium near Moscow, Sergey "took his father aside, looked him in the eye and said, 'Thank you for taking us all out of Russia.'"
Thanks to a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Brin began his graduate studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California – already home to some of the world's largest tech companies – in 1993. It was there that he met fellow student Larry Page. The pair clashed at first, but their twinned technological preoccupations resulted in a close friendship, a joint research paper – "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine" – and a new internet search engine, operated on a series of cheap computers that they piled into a college dorm room. A prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Andy Bechtolsheim gave them $100,000 and on 4 September 1998, Google, Inc was officially born, with a mission to make "all the world's information 'universally accessible and useful'."
The site's success was swift and spectacular. When Google floated in 2004 its two young founders became the world's richest thirtysomethings, and last year Brin alone was valued at $12bn. Their wealth allowed them many perks, from roller hockey games in the Google parking lot to private jets parked at an exclusive Nasa airstrip. Google employees have the luxury of spending 20 per cent of their working hours on their own research projects – an initiative that has yielded some of the company's greatest successes, including Gmail. Brin has a ticket to space in 2011, courtesy of a $4.5m investment in a US space tourism company.
But the company also has a philanthropic arm: Brin and Page have invested heavily, for example, in alternative energy research, and in the X Prize Foundation, which is running a competition to create the world's first 100mpg car. "Obviously everyone wants to be successful," Brin told ABC News after he and Page were named the network's "Persons of the Week" in 2004, "but I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical and ultimately making a big difference in the world."
Google has turned from a search engine into a tech behemoth whose growth terrifies even Microsoft. As well as creating Gmail, the company acquired AdSense in 2003, a search-based advertising system that is its licence to print money. Android, Google's open source operating system, is now available on a variety of mobile smartphones. In the past 18 months, the company has launched the Chrome internet browser and the web-based Chrome operating system; the new email and instant messaging service Google Wave; and the Nexus One phone, the first item of Google-branded hardware. A Google-branded laptop is expected to follow.
In 2007, Brin married his long-time love Anne Wojcicki, whose sister had provided Google with a garage to operate from in its early days. A fellow entrepreneur, in 2007 Wojcicki used a $3.9m investment from Google to launch the biotech firm 23andMe, which can map DNA and give its clients information on their ancestry and their chances of contracting certain diseases. Brin's own DNA showed that he had a higher than average chance of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease later in life. His mother Eugenia is already a Parkinson's sufferer, but Brin sees his own risk as positive news: information, after all, trumps ignorance.
Schmidt, a seasoned CEO, was asked by Brin and Page to come on board as Google's boss in 2001. The triumvirate's reputation suggests Schmidt is talkative but professional with journalists, while his playful young partners pipe up only occasionally, letting slip details of the company's operations. It was Schmidt who put the business case for Google to expand into China: with 384 million internet users, it is the world's biggest digital market – of which Google has grasped about 36 per cent since 2006. But Brin and Page spent a year weighing the pros and cons of the decision on what they called their "evil scale" before approving the launch of Google.cn.
The process of removing the Chinese search engine's censorship filters could take the company weeks, and the Chinese government is yet to respond to Google's ultimatum. Could Beijing really countenance a filter-free search engine? Probably not. But it also knows that driving Google from China would be a public relations catastrophe. For Google and Brin, on the other hand, standing up to the regime may cost them some income (and Google China's 700 employees their jobs) but it also acts as proof that Brin and his fellow multibillionaire founder will stick to their guns – and, indeed, to their company motto.
A life in brief
Born: 21 August 1973 in Moscow. His family fled to America in 1979 to escape communist persecution of Jews.
Education: BSc with honours in mathematics and computer science from the University of Maryland. Has a master's degree from Stanford University.
Family: Married to Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe, a Google-backed consumer genetics service.
Career: With Larry Page, he developed the project which in 1998 became Google Inc. The search engine now has 200 million hits a day. Its headquarters are in the heart of Silicon Valley and has a motto of "Don't Be Evil". In 2006 Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn (£883m).
He says: "I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical and ultimately making a big difference in the world."
They say: "He's always had an emotional tug within him, saying 'we shouldn't be making compromises'." Author Ken Auletta