What I overheard Google's Eric Schmidt telling the President of Estonia

One of the great things about the World Economic Forum conference at Davos in Switzerland are the chance meetings. You never know who you’re going to bump into, but you know they will be interesting.

In this photo, I was deliberately trying to bump into Google chairman Eric Schmidt. But as you can see, Schmidt was deep in conversation with a guy in a spotted bow tie and a suit vest covered in spooky rune symbols, on the left …

I introduced myself to Schmidt but he wasn’t interested. He really, really wanted to hear what Mr. Spotted Bow Tie was saying, instead.

So naturally, I eavesdropped.

The man with the backpack on the right is a Google PR person who did not want me talking to Schmidt — you can see he’s literally trying to block me out of Smith’s little conversation circle. But Schmidt was in a public area of the conference, and he seemed to have no problem taking questions from Spotted Bow Tie.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why Schmidt was so interested in what Spotted Bow Tie was saying. He seemed to be complaining to Schmidt about the prices of iTunes and Netflix. I didn’t catch it all, but the gist seemed to be something to do with the issue of dealing with all the different pricing structures in Europe.

There are, after all, at least six major currencies here despite the European currency “union.”

I assumed — due to the bow tie and rune waistcoat — that the man was some sort of quirky tech billionaire who no longer cared what people thought of the way he dresses.

Wrong!

Sheryl Sandberg Eric Schmidt Satya Nadella DavosJim EdwardsSheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt and Satya Nadella at Davos.

His name badge identified him as Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia. Now this was starting to make sense: Estonia is a tech startup hotbed, especially its capital Talinn. TransferWise has a big office there.

Ilves’ waistcoat is also quite famous and you can see a better picture of it here.

More significantly, Ilves also used to be a member of the European Parliament. He also currently sits on the Council on CyberSecurity’s Advisory Board. The EU is currently debating whether Google is a monopoly, and whether the EU should require that Google be broken up as an antitrust measure, so you can see why Schmidt might have a lot of patience for Ilves. Also, the pair have met before.

As I said, I didn’t catch the whole thing, but I did hear Schmidt say one interesting thing: “What Europeans don’t like is America telling them what to do.”

This is a truism, but it is nonetheless true. There is greater hostility to Google here in Europe than there is in the US, in part because it’s an American company rather than a European one.

Schmidt’s comment made me think that — while it is unlikely the EU will actually require that Google be broken up — he at least understands that on the other side of the Atlantic, Google is a foreign entity and thus needs to tread carefully.

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