Googling Kent Walker

Life as Google’s top lawyer is a crucible filled with extraordinary demands. He couldn’t be happier

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - November 2010 magazine

By Martin Kuz on October 8, 2010


Learning of Kent Walker’s duties as general counsel of Google requires little effort. Just Google “Google,” click the News tab and scan the headlines:

“China renews Google license amid censorship row”

“Google defeats Viacom in landmark copyright case”

“EU examines Google antitrust complaints ‘very carefully’”

“Google Faces Probe By States For WiFi Breaches”

The reports appeared over a three-week period in early summer and pertained to only a fraction of the company’s legal affairs, many more of which drew coverage in countless other articles. Few mentioned Walker. Yet while his name seldom surfaces in the news, he is one of the executives charged with upholding Google’s guiding principle: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” As he tells it, there’s nowhere he would rather ply his trade, largely because to work for Google is, in effect, to work everywhere.

“I find this a fascinating place to be,” says the 49-year-old Walker, who arrived at the company’s Mountain View headquarters in 2006 after a three-year stint as eBay’s deputy general counsel. “We’re dealing with important issues with smart people in a way that we can have impact. That’s my definition of heaven. That doesn’t mean things are always calm and peaceful, but Google is in the middle of a really important and interesting discussion. It’s like the most interesting law exam you’ve ever taken—every day.”

His daily exam covers myriad practice areas: copyright, trademark, patent; privacy, defamation, obscenity; antitrust, competition, contract. The list goes on and wraps around the planet as Google confronts legal quandaries in countries from Australia to Austria, China to Chile, Turkey to Thailand. The company’s ever-widening presence obliges Walker and his legal team to deal with foreign regulators and courts, attempting to locate common ground between Google and governments in the digital frontier.

“There’s one Internet and 200-plus countries, each of which has its own rules,” he says. “We’ve been fairly strong [in asserting] that while a country may wish to impose some rules on content that’s provided locally, no country should be able to dictate the content of the global Internet. And this has been a point of friction with some countries that have been concerned that content they find objectionable is available anywhere on the Net. So that’s something we’re constantly trying to work through.”

No more so than in China, whose tense relationship with Google has attracted considerable media attention. In March, to bypass the government’s censorship of search results, the company began automatically rerouting users of its China-based site to its unrestricted site in Hong Kong. Chinese officials disapproved, and by late June, as Google awaited the Chinese decision on renewing its Internet content provider license, speculation simmered about who would acquiesce. The New York Times weighed in with an editorial, arguing that to allow censored search results “would make Google into an accomplice of China’s repressive government.”

In the end, the sides compromised. The company had its license renewed after changing the China-based site—its services are limited to music and product searches and text translation—so that users need to click a link to go to the Hong Kong page. The truce enables Google to stay in China, the world’s largest online market with almost 400 million Internet users and counting, while still offering a portal to unfiltered searches through the Hong Kong site.

“People think of it as a China issue but it’s really a global issue,” says Walker, who describes Google’s approach to data availability as a three-way balancing act. “We’re trying to do the best we can to triangulate between making information universally accessible and allowing people to have free access to the Internet, the need to comply with local laws, and the need to keep our people safe and out of jail.”

So far, at least, the company’s employees have avoided incarceration, though some have endured questioning abroad, and in February, a judge in Italy convicted three of its workers of privacy violations, imposing six-month suspended sentences. (Google has appealed.) Italian authorities faulted the company for waiting too long to remove a video clip that showed a group of teens taunting an autistic boy even though Google took it down after receiving notice from law enforcement. Elsewhere, regulators preemptively blocked access to Google and its various sites, including YouTube, when they deemed certain content offensive. In the past few years, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Syria and Thailand, among others, briefly suspended Google’s services. Iran, Libya and Turkey belong to a small list of nations with active bans.

Overseeing the attorneys who protect Google’s interests across every time zone makes for an around-the-clock job. “You turn off the laptop at midnight and turn it back on at 7 in the morning and you’ve got a full inbox again,” Walker says. He extols the company’s free-thinking, “bottom-up spirit” instilled by Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, with whom he has frequent contact on all manner of legal matters. “I’ve seen engineers in their early 20s come into a senior management meeting and turn around the direction of the meeting because they had the right side of the argument or had an insight that no one else in the room had,” Walker says. “That’s a really exciting environment to work in.”

The ubiquity and deepening cultural influence of Google can obscure the fact that Brin and Page launched it only 12 years ago at Stanford University; true to the Silicon Valley startup mythos, their enterprise took root in a residential garage before expanding to offices. The company has since grown to 22,000 employees worldwide; one-third of them work at the so-called Googleplex in Mountain View. The Times once likened the expansive office park to “a bucolic and extraordinarily well-financed theme camp”—an effect enhanced by the prevalence of young engineers in T-shirts, jeans and assorted open-toed footwear.

A Palo Alto native who lives there today with his wife, Diana Walsh, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, and their three children, Walker grew up reading the science fiction novels of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. The books appealed to him “not so much for the gee-whiz [factor] of things blowing up or action chases in space,” he says, “but because of the visions of how technology was creating interesting societies.”

He graduated from Harvard in 1983 and headed back West to attend Stanford Law School, where he co-founded the Stanford Law and Technology Association. The group’s initial purpose, Walker explains, was to delve into a question whose answer remains somewhat murky more than two decades later: “Is there such a thing as technology law?” After earning his J.D., he helped run the successful state Assembly campaign of Ted Lempert, a San Mateo Democrat, and clerked at the Howard Rice firm in San Francisco before joining the U.S. Attorney’s office there in 1990. During his five years as a federal prosecutor, he co-founded the office’s high-tech crime unit and handled scores of cybercrime cases, winning the conviction of notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick, whose illegal exploits inspired the 2000 film Takedown. In 1995, as the early strains of Internet fever spread through the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, Walker jumped to the legal staff of AirTouch Communications, a cell phone firm. His tech buzz intensified after he signed on as Netscape’s deputy general counsel two years later. “There was a sense of mission, excitement, newness that was intoxicating,” Walker says of the company he remembers as “a magical place.” He stayed until 2001, when he joined Liberate Technologies, which had begun as joint venture between Netscape and Oracle to bring TV to the Internet which he wryly calls “a great idea—about five or 10 years too soon.” In 2004, following Liberate’s demise, he went to eBay, to a position that prepared him for the global legal practice he now manages at Google. (He declined to talk about ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman’s bid for governor.)

If Walker’s lean, clean-cut appearance and polite manner lend him aspects of a Boy Scout leader, in conversation he comes across as a polymath. He cites Henry Ford and former President Theodore Roosevelt while talking about business innovation, discusses the theories of German sociologist Max Weber and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, and offers his thoughts on The Rational Optimist, the recent book by Matt Ridley, a former editor with The Economist. He shows a similar far-ranging interest in sundry areas of the law.

“Kent gets excited by the complexities and nuances of issues,” says Donald Harrison, Google’s deputy general counsel in charge of its corporate and competition groups. “He would dive into every issue if he could, and I think sometimes it tears at him that he can’t. But he does a good job of finding the balance between giving people the tools they need to succeed and giving them the space they need to work.”

A business with an annual revenue of $25 billion tends to keep its legal counsel occupied. As Google brokered détente with China in early summer, authorities in the U.S., Europe and Australia began probing whether the company violated privacy laws by gleaning personal data from wireless networks while its Street View vehicles mapped roadways. (Google has stopped collecting Wi-Fi data and pledged to cooperate with investigators.) The company received better news when a federal judge in New York ruled in its favor in a $1 billion copyright suit brought by Viacom over the posting of clips from TV shows on YouTube. The judge agreed that Google complied with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by promptly deleting the videos when notified by Viacom. Walker believes the decision, which Viacom has appealed, reinforces the protection of free expression online.

“If the ruling had come out the other way … it would be like saying that the phone company was responsible for communication that went across its lines,” he says. “You would have created a regime in which companies had to vet and preview content before it was allowed up in a manual way”—a potentially crippling burden for YouTube, given that users upload in excess of 20 hours of content to the site every minute.

Facebook, eBay and Yahoo led an amicus brief on Google’s behalf in the case. Michael Callahan, Yahoo’s general counsel, has known Walker since his days at Liberate, and on occasion, as in the Viacom litigation, their respective employers find common cause. Yet even when opposing one another—Yahoo has objected to its rival’s efforts to establish a global digital library with its ongoing Google Books project—Callahan has appreciated his counterpart’s work. “What he brings to the table is raw intelligence, experience in a lot of different areas, and a very low-key, level-headed approach,” Callahan says.

The two attorneys were on the same side in 2008 as Google and Yahoo negotiated a limited search-advertising partnership. Pressure from U.S. Department of Justice regulators who saw the proposed deal as a step toward a monopoly compelled the companies to scrap it. Since then, as the company has expanded through its acquisition of mobile advertising firms, social search engines, online databases and other services (and in light of its proposed Net neutrality deal with Verizon), industry and government scrutiny of its business practices has intensified. Some competitors, notably Microsoft and AT&T, suggest Google has skirted antitrust laws. Earlier this year, the European Union opened an inquiry in response to allegations that the company, seeking to harm its rivals, lowers their rank in search results to deter online users from visiting their sites.

The criticism of Google runs counter to its mostly shiny public image and unofficial motto: “Don’t be evil.” Walker regards the flak as a natural result of growth, and he characterizes the company’s contact with regulators in the U.S. and overseas as “very positive.” As for the complex algorithms that govern Google’s search rankings, he adds, “There’s never been any evidence that we let advertising results influence search results. … If you want to rank high on Google, have higher quality content.”

Stanford economist Gregory Rosston, who specializes in antitrust and competition issues, credits Google with recognizing that with size comes skepticism from competitors and government officials. “They seem to be doing things in an open way,” he says. The strategy contrasts with that of Microsoft, perhaps Google’s most persistent detractor, which sought to impede regulators in the 1990s when they investigated the Seattle-based company for anticompetitive tactics. “Google seems to realize that the government isn’t just going to go away,” Rosston says.

Walker knows as much from his years as a federal prosecutor, and he exudes earnestness when he says, “I’m really committed that we’re doing the right thing here and helping people create, share and access new forms of information, entertainment and knowledge.” At the same time, while conceding Google commits mistakes, and despite those who doubt its motives, he considers it a force for global good. “The north star of what we do is to try to make things better for society,” he says. Or as one of his heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, said of those who cast aspersions: “It is not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

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