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Google CEO recognizes concerns about data monopoly

Sundar Pichai tells Nikkei that company will take a 'long term approach' on China

Google's chief executive, Sundar Pichai, speaks to the Nikkei at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, on Sept. 29.

PALO ALTO -- Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai has told Nikkei that he recognizes the growing concerns over the so-called "new monopoly" of data, wealth and talent wielded by information technology companies.

On China, where Google shut down its search engine in 2010 over censorship issues, he said the company is taking a "very long term approach" in a country with the largest online population in the world.

In his first exclusive interview with a Japanese media outlet since taking the helm in 2015, Pichai said, "We are one of the most scrutinized companies in the world, and we understand that. I've always felt it's appropriate, and we are happy to be scrutinized, because we want to be held to a high standard and do well by that standard."

Google has a global share of more than 80% in internet searches conducted over PCs and smartphone operating systems. The company collects data from users to improve services to attract more customers. Many of Google's services have more than one billion users around the world. But the amount of data that Google has amassed is making many people worried.

"The data belongs to the user. We are stewards of it," said Pichai in the Sept. 29 interview with Nikkei. "We always live in a construct that users come and use us because they trust us." He suggested that Google will further improve privacy protection measures by utilizing cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, saying that "we never feel we are done."

Consumers are not the only ones scrutinizing the IT giant. The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, determined in June that Google's shopping search service breaches EU antitrust rules and imposed fines of 2.42 billion euro ($2.86 billion), a record figure for a single company. The commission is investigating whether Google's other services violate antitrust laws. Investors are worried that the Google may be heading down the same path as Microsoft - the software giant whose innovations lost momentum and entered a period of prolonged stagnation after it was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for breaching antimonopoly regulations.

"We obviously have differences of opinion, but I think we debated respectfully. But, as a company, we have been thoughtful about making sure the company stays focused on what's most important, which is continuing to build great products," Pichai said. He stressed that Google is different from Microsoft. "So, we'll engage the process thoughtfully, but we don't let it consume the company," he said.

Turning to Asia, Pichai said the company is cautiously seeking new ways to approach China, after indicating his intention to return to the market about a year ago.

"We have a lot of employees in China today," he said. "We help many Chinese companies expand globally by providing advertising. I think we are committed to doing more." When asked about details, including Google's search business, Pichai stated that "China is not in the context of a specific product" and said that the company is "taking a long term approach of how we can do more there."

He added, "We comply with the local laws and regulations of the country." Not giving out any details, he said the company "will figure out a thoughtful way to engage, at the right time." Since Google withdrew from search in mainland China in 2010, Xi Jinping has tightened state control over cyberspace as president.

On the recent announcement by Google parent Alphabet, where Pichai is a board member,to acquire part of HTC's smartphone business for $1.1 billion, Pichai explained that "you need to do hardware and software together" in order to "push computing forward." Questioned about differences with Google's purchase of Motorola, he said that deal was done "as part of projects in which we were working together." After the transfer of intellectual property from Motorola, Google has now established its own hardware team according to him. "On the surface [the deal] may look similar, but it's very different in the details," he said, stopping short of further specifics. He said he "will talk about it at the right point in time."

Moves by U.S. President Donald Trump to tighten immigration policy, Pichai said, have "clearly impacted our employees." An immigrant himself from India, he said: "Immigration is one of America's strengths [and] it brings incredible value to the country. The same is true for our company. And it's true for me personally."

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