- Douglas Merrill served as Google’s chief information officer between 2003 and 2008, during which time the company went public and launched flagship products including Gmail.
- Speaking to Business Insider, Merrill revealed the biggest regret he has from his time at Google was failing to conquer China.
- “We didn’t do it right, we didn’t make it through. It ended up not being as useful as we thought it would be,” he said.
- Merrill is currently the CEO and founder of ZestFinance, a software firm that provides AI tools to help financial institutions improve the quality of their underwriting.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
Douglas Merrill served as Google’s chief information officer from 2003 to 2008, joining an elite group of business people to have held a C-suite role at one of the biggest tech firms in the world.
Speaking to Business Insider, the 49-year-old describes his time at Google as both “thrilling” and “amazing” – not least because the company underwent a period of rapid growth during his tenure, including going public.
Yet, for all Merill relished the experience, he does harbour one regret from his time there: The way he and his colleagues handled Google’s attempt to enter China in 2006 by launching an official ‘google.cn’ domain.
It’s particularly salient given that Google has been making well-documented plans to return to China after leaving in 2010. The project, known internally as Dragonfly, has stoked huge controversy among staff, lawmakers, human rights groups, and academics. Little has changed.
“It was super controversial,” says Merrill, reflecting on Google’s original mission in 2006. “To go into China, we were going to have to do censored search results, which was something we had not done anywhere else. And also, it was going to be hard technically. It’s just a bummer.”
Merrill says staff at the company became divided on the issue, with some viewing even the slightest degree of censorship as a betrayal of Google’s ideals.
Read more: Here are all the major US tech companies blocked behind China’s ‘Great Firewall’
“A lot of people in the company were upset about it. We said we were going to make all the world’s information universally accessible and useful, not most of the world’s information. The counter-argument was ‘well, isn’t most better than none?’
“It ended up being a pretty tough conversation in a small anteroom, with about four of us more or less taking a vote on it. Well, obviously, there was no actual vote, but the company ultimately made the decision to go into China.
“I was supportive of going into China, and we subsequently failed at that entry. We didn’t do it right, we didn’t make it through. It ended up not being as useful as we thought it would be.
“Today, I wish I’d either supported the other side, or figured out as a team how to enter China more effectively.”
More than a decade after Merrill left, Google is still wrestling with the China question. Following the backlash over Project Dragonfly, Google has reportedly scrapped the plan. Many of Google’s products remain unavailable in the country to this day, most notably Gmail and YouTube.
But CEO Sundar Pichai appears to think Google can still be a force for good in the country. “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China,” he told staff last year. The years-long debate looks set to rage on.
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