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Zoe Thomas: This is your tech news briefing for Tuesday, October 19th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. With ransomware attacks on the rise from bad actors around the world, is it time for countries to develop the equivalent of the Geneva Conventions for cyber security? The CEO of Google company, Alphabet, Sundar Pichai tells WSJ editor in chief, Matt Murray, it is.
Sundar Pichai: Governments in a multi-lateral basis, the G20s et cetera, need to put it up higher on the agenda.
Matt Murray: You’re calling for regulation on that front.
Sundar Pichai: I’m calling for global frameworks. You’re going to need it for areas like cyber security.
Zoe Thomas: That moment took place as part of the WSJ’s Tech Live conference yesterday. All this week, we’ll be bringing you conversations from that event with some of the tech world’s most influential voices. On today’s show, we have a lot more of that chat between Matt Murray and Sundar Pichai after these headlines.
We report exclusively that Microsoft executives told Bill Gates to stop a flirtatious email exchange with a female employee more than a decade ago, saying the messages were inappropriate, according to people familiar with the matter. In 2019 gates, the co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft stepped down as chair of the company’s board. The followed revelations that he’d had a yearslong affair with a Microsoft engineer. A spokeswoman for Gates said in a written statement that these new claims were false, and came from sources who have no direct knowledge, and in some cases, significant conflicts of interest.
Lawmakers are asking Amazon for evidence that its executives did not mislead Congress or lie under oath about the company’s business practices. A bipartisan group of five Congress members sent a letter to Amazon CEO, Andy Jassy on Sunday, asking for “Exculpatory evidence,” that would corroborate sworn testimony by several company leaders, including Jeff Bezos, from 2019, and 2020. During that time, Amazon executives testified before the house antitrust subcommittee and sent written responses that the company doesn’t use third party seller data to develop its own product lines. But last year, the journal reported that Amazon employees regularly use such data to reverse engineer bests sellers under Amazon’s own brands. And the Amazon spokesman has said the company and its executives didn’t mislead the committee.
And Facebook is planning to hire 10,000 people in the European union to help it build technologies for the metaverse. If you haven’t heard of the metaverse, it’s the idea of a shared online realm where people will be able to use virtual and augmented reality to live out parts of their daily lives, from playing games to buying clothes or holding meetings through avatars. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said over the summer, the metaverse would be a successor to the mobile internet driving new tech investment. Our reporter Sarah Needleman has been looking into the potential of the metaverse and has more on what it means to Facebook.
Sarah Needleman: For a business that already specializes in social media and relies heavily on commerce and advertising, it certainly makes sense for Facebook to want to have a presence in that, because you could really see the metaverse being an extension of what we have today, in terms of social media. We’ll look and see each other and talk to each other as avatars and we’ll have social experiences together. And we can do now just a small degree, see concerts. It’ll just be the same, only far more immersive, far more sophisticated. And if Facebook has a big presence in the early days now, you can imagine that it wants to be at the center of all of this exciting changes going forward.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. Coming up, innovation, privacy, government oversight. We’ve got highlights from a conversation between the CEO of Alphabet and the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal. That’s after the break.
Among the many conversations featured on the first day of the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live Conference was a discussion between WSJ editor in chief, Matt Murray, and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google parent, Alphabet. They touched on some hot button issues facing the tech sector include cybersecurity and tech innovation. Here are highlights from their talk, starting with Matt.
Matt Murray: Sundar Pichai, great to see you. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today. We really appreciate it.
Sundar Pichai: Pleasure to be here, Matt. Thanks for having me
Matt Murray: Alphabets performed very well on your watch. The stock has done well, the financial performance has been strong. The criticism that you’ve gotten at times is that Alphabet isn’t the innovative force that it once was. That it’s a more mature company, it’s a bigger company, it’s a more slow moving company. I know you’ve heard the criticism. Is it fair?
Sundar Pichai: You know, innovation is something, I think, you have to prove it, you have to earn it. One of the biggest areas of deep innovation I believed in… I’ve always believed in deeper technology work and then applying it to make a difference in day to day lives. And I viewed AI as one of a foundational, one of the most profound investments we are making. And the challenge I had given the company was to use that investment to just build helpful features. And I see evidence of it every day. If you’re in Gmail and you’re typing and Smart Compose saves you time. When you have 10 products with billions of users using them, to me, we don’t want to add complexity to users. Innovation for me is about people are relying on these products all the time, just making life easier for them in micro moments. So, that’s how I think about it. There’ll be bigger leaps, but those happen over time and we are working on those as well. And so it’s a combination of both.
Matt Murray: Let me ask you about the privacy debate. Of course, it never really goes away, and you’re facing a lawsuit now, of course, involving incognito mode from some users claiming that there’s unlawful tracking. And using people’s data has been central to the success Google has had, but there is a big debate, as you know, going on about privacy. A lot of concerns, a lot of challenges about it right now. As the debate evolves, how at odds are changing notions of privacy with Google’s business model, and does the model need to change itself here because of that?
Sundar Pichai: We’ve built products like… Take a product like Gmail, for now 16 years. And we deal with people’s most sensitive information and people trust us. When I look at the queries coming in through search and stuff, it’s a trust we work hard to gain. And privacy and security, because one of the biggest risks to privacy is the data getting compromised too. So those two have been foundational investments for us. I think people’s privacy expectations are constantly evolving. We work hard to stay ahead. Most of the data today we keep is for the benefit of the user and to give it back. We support our products through advertising, but even in advertising, we need very limited information to make sure the ad is relevant to you, and that enough people find the ad effective.
We have clear roadmaps to do all of that in a privacy safe way too. So AI counterintuitively will help us do more with less data over time. One of the biggest changes we announced is by default auto deleting your activity data. Now it’s owned by defaults. Over 2 billion accounts, I think, by default, we automatically delete the data after a period of 18 months. We have to make sure we are giving people benefits and people need to feel they have choice and control and transparency, and that’s the foundational principles.
Matt Murray: What’s changed that made security… It is a big issue. Lots of CEOs and executives talk about it and face it. The attacks, I take, the cyber hacking attacks and other things are worse than ever right now, what’s causing that?
Sundar Pichai: Look, there’s a lot of financial incentives for many people. If you think about it, the world of cyber doesn’t have norms and conventions we have established in the real world. You don’t have the Geneva Convention equivalent on the cyber world. So over time, I think, we need to internalize that and governments in a multi-lateral basis, the G-20s, et cetera, need to put it up higher on the agenda.
Matt Murray: You’re calling for regulation on that front.
Sundar Pichai: I’m calling for global frameworks. You’re going to need it for areas like cybersecurity, just like we have it in the real world. And if not, you’re just going to see more of it because countries would resort to those things. And so I do think you’re going to need more frameworks like this for a time.
Matt Murray: Obviously you’ve been grappling with different regulatory concerns for a long time on different parts of the world. Europe has their approach. You’ve got the US, periodically. You’ve you testified to Congress. And I know, I worked on this issue pretty much. Is there, or should there be one privacy standard everywhere? And if there is, what should it look like?
Sundar Pichai: It’s a great question. I don’t want to say there should be one privacy standard because at the end of the day, it gets to the sovereignty of each country. But I think having a common framework, the more commonality there exists it helps. Part of the reason I have thought the digital single market in Europe was a good idea was because if you were a European company starting up somewhere in Europe, you had to deal with 25 different regulations. Unlike in the US, you could scale up much better, right? So I think having common frameworks help. I think the GDPR has been a great foundation. I would really like to see a federal privacy standard in the US. I’m worried about a patchwork of regulations in states. That adds a lot of complexity.
And I actually think it’s counterintuitive. Larger companies can cope up with more regulations and entrench themselves, whereas for a smaller to start it can be a real task. So I do think the internet works well because we it’s interoperable, it’s open, it works across borders, promotes trade across borders. And so as we evolve and regulate the internet I think it’s important to preserve those attributes.
Matt Murray: You’ve heard both administrations of the last two, in the US, talk about ways of working more closely with companies R&D money or closer collaboration. Are you seeing it? Is that a good idea? Should the government be supporting certain kinds of tech research either with money or more deeply in a closer public private partnership than perhaps has been the norm in recent history here?
Sundar Pichai: I think I’d be careful about… The government has limited resources and it needs to focus, but all of us are benefiting from foundational investments from 20, 30 years ago, which is what a lot of the modern tech innovation is based on. And we take it for granted a bit. So when I look at the semi-connector supply chain quantum, which will take a decade to do that, government can play a key role, both in terms of policies allowing us to bring in the best talent from anywhere in the world, or participating to universities and creating some of the longer term research areas, which private companies may not focus on on day one, but plays out over 10 to 20 years. So I see a role and I do think public-private partnerships here can be a good template. And so I’ve advocated for it. I’m heartened by the fact that in a bipartisan way, I talk to senators on both sides, this is an area… There’s bipartisan interest in making sure we are thinking about it for the long-term.
Speaker 4: Sundar Pichai, thank you very much for the time today. And the conversation. Really enjoyed the chance to sit down with you.
Sundar Pichai: Thanks, Matt. Pleasure to be here.
Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. Tech Live continues today, Tuesday at 11:00 AM Eastern. You can catch all the speakers by heading over to techlive.wsj.com/tlpodcast. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.