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Schmidt: 'Google doesn't do data mining'

Er, is that a joke too?

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Google boss Eric Schmidt has claimed that his company doesn't "do data mining." But this may be some sort of joke. Schmidt was speaking on The Colbert Report, the famously satirical US current-affairs show, and apparently, even when he's speaking with The Wall Street Journal, there's no way of knowing whether he's earnest, flippant, or completely mad.

During Schmidt's appearance on the show Tuesday evening in the States, host and friend of The Reg Steven Colbert accused Google of making its dollars "by essentially data mining." And though Colbert seemed to conflate Google's mass collection of user data with its search algorithms, Schmidt was adamant that data mining isn't something that Google does.

"You do know things about Americans that we, maybe, when we were children, didn't think people would ever know about us," Colbert said. "Our likes, or dislikes, are codified, regionally if not individually, correct?"

"It's true that we see your searches," Schmidt says. "But we forget them after a while."

This is apparently a reference to the company's latest data-retention policy, which says it erases the last octet of a user's IP address from its server logs after nine months, and that it removes cookie data after 18 months. The policy was announced in the fall of 2008, and it was implemented sometime before November of 2009.

But Google only agreed to such scrubbing after years of pressure from governments and privacy advocates, and the European Union data protection authorities still say that the policy does not comply with EU law.

Those are two things the average human wouldn't glean from Schmidt's chat with Colbert. "I'm supposed to trust you [when you say you forget after awhile]?" Colbert asked.

"Not only do you have to," Schmidt answered. "It's the law in a lot of countries."

When Colbert pressed the Google boss on the data-mining question, Schmidt suddenly jumped from Google's epic data stores — which are used to massage search results and target ads on Google AdSense network and so much more — to a discussion of its search algorithms.

"We actually don't do data mining," Schmidt said. "Our computers go out and they find out everything going on on the web and they figure out what points to each other and that gives us the algorithm, which is called PageRank. And that's how we decide how to rank the results."

Google Research head Peter Norvig says PageRank isn't really that important. But that's another matter.

Colbert finally let Schmidt slide on the data-mining issue. But he did ask the CEO about his claim that in the future, every young person will be entitled to automatically change their names when they reach adulthood in order to escape all the embarrassing stuff they did on social networking sites. Schmidt was speaking with the Wall Street Journal, and the Journal made a point of saying that Schmidt uttered those words "apparently seriously." But Schmidt told Colbert he wasn't serious at all.

"It was a joke," he said. "It just wasn't very good."

Was Schmidt joking when he said that only miscreants care about net privacy? Was he joking when he said much the same thing about web anonymity? And if he was, are these subjects he should be joking about?

Our take is that Schmidt's chats with the press are increasingly nonsensical. And that may or may not be a joke. ®

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