Shareholder meetings are a strange piece of corporate theater: Required for public companies, attended by activists and senior citizens, and functionally mixed with equal parts rote procedure and circus.
At Google’s annual shareholder meeting this week, the protests were slightly bigger and peppier than last year, and they hired a plane to fly around with a “Don’t Be Evil” banner. Google let the protesters deeper into its campus, where in the public courtyard they waved a large colorful parachute with the Google Chrome logo that said #Don’tFundEvil. The causes at stake included displeasure with the company’s financial support of organizations lobbying against climate change, its employees displacing and evicting local residents, and its contract employee treatment.
As the meeting itself kicked off in the cool of the Google cafeteria, Google chairman Eric Schmidt joked yet again about how the free provided lunch was at least half the value of attending, and Google’s chief lawyer David Drummond used the same line as last year about being glad for a formal occasion to wear a suit and tie.
This year’s meeting ran extra-long, closer to two hours than one, in part because the Reverend Jesse Jackson showed up. Complaining at length that tech companies have too few African Americans and Latinos in their senior ranks, he was the only speaker to get more than a “we hear your concerns” response, with Drummond promising that the company would soon release statistics about its workforce diversity.
“We had planned to disclose that next month, and we will be following through with that,” Drummond said of the data release.
Google’s outside shareholders had formally entered six different suggested changes to the company’s governance, which addressed some of the protesters’ concerns like disclosures about lobbying funding. But Drummond said that prior to the meeting, advance voting had guaranteed that none of them would pass.
In the most extreme case, 93 percent of advanced votes were against Google reforming its tax policies. The shareholders — or at least those who matter — had already spoken. They don’t want Google paying more taxes.
After Schmidt waxed poetic about how “technology reflects the intense optimism of humanity,” it was time for the open Q&A. If you have one single share of Google or you represent someone who does, you have the right to ask the company a question, and Google is polite and indulgent in its responses, often promising that an executive will follow up personally to address the concern.
Last year’s Google shareholder Q&A was excruciating for this reporter, as the initial Edward Snowden PRISM disclosure broke that same afternoon, and multiple attendees used their precious question time to thank the Google executive team for the lovely free lunch, rather than pressing them to talk about their complicity with government surveillance. Reporters don’t get to ask questions during the session.
(This year was a bit better; yet again there was news breaking during the meeting, but I didn’t really care what Eric Schmidt and company think of the New York Times firing Jill Abramson.)
The public comments that got the most applause in 2014 were about dissatisfaction with Google creating two classes of stock in order to consolidate future power with its leadership. Google CEO Larry Page, who kept quiet through much of the meeting, voiced up to say Google’s history of tight leadership “gave us the ability to take a longer-term focus on innovation and not just do incremental work.”
Shelton Erlich, a man who has developed a reputation for being vocal at technology company shareholder meetings, wanted to complain about the lack of a shade tent at the registration booth, and also to register his displeasure about the proposal for Google to stop using complicated international accounting to avoid a larger tax burden. “The proposal to pay more taxes is outrageous. Why did you let that go through? What a stupid idea,” Erlich said.
Then a local resident and shareholder named Hal wanted to thank an unnamed Google employee for helping him lift something heavy at Costco a few weeks ago, and also, he said would like Google to consider boycotting Israel for human rights reasons.
Besides the commitment to release data about minority employment soon, there was only one tidbit of news from the meeting. Schmidt responded to the timely issue of privacy regulations in Europe, where a high court ruling this week said that individuals should have the right to request that Google delete links to search results about themselves that they don’t want people to find.
“You have a collision between a ‘right to be forgotten’ and a right to know,” he said. “From Google’s perspective, that’s a balance. Google believes, looking at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”
And there you have it. Until next year, at the same place, the same time, with the same free lunch jokes.