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Sergey Brin and student Google cofounder Sergey Brin responding to questions from students attending a SIMS class (Jeffery Kahn photos)

Google cofounder Sergey Brin comes to class at Berkeley

– Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, showed up for class at Berkeley this week, a surprise guest speaker in SIMS Associate Professor Marti Hearst's "Search Engines: Technology, Society, and Business" classroom Monday afternoon. Casual and relaxed, Brin talked about how Google came to be, answered students' questions, and showed that someone worth $11 billion (give or take a billion) still can be comfortable in an old pair of blue jeans.

Indistinguishable in dress, age, and demeanor from many of the students in the class, Brin covered a lot of ground in his remarks, but ultimately it was his unspoken message that was most powerful: To those with focus and passion, all things are possible.

In his remarks to the class, Brin (now a shade over 30) stressed simplicity. Simple ideas sometimes can change the world, he said.

Take the case of the Wikipedia, the free online multilingual encyclopedia, written collaboratively by volunteers. Anyone can add a new entry to the Wikipedia, and anyone can edit it. This is a simple idea – one you would assume would not work, but it does, said Brin. One reason is scale: it taps the power and potential of a global audience.

Sergey Brin talk
Course webcast site

Likewise, Google started out with the simplest of ideas, with a global audience in mind. In the mid-1990s, Brin and Larry Page were Stanford students pursuing doctorates in computer science. Brin recalled that at that time, there were some five major Internet search engines, the importance of search was being de-emphasized, and the owners of these major search sites were focusing on creating portals with increased content offerings.

"We believed we could build a better search. We had a simple idea, that not all pages are created equal. Some are more important," related Brin. He cited the example of a person searching for "Berkeley," noting that such a search would turn up the City of Berkeley and the UC Berkeley websites. Because of the wealth of information online at UC Berkeley, the university website is more important. And because of that, said Brin, a search engine should rank it higher and display it more prominently in its results.

The algorithm that Google uses to rank pages has evolved over the years, Brin said, but the concept that not all pages are equal remains the key to Google's success.

Both during the class and for about 45 minutes after, Brin answered students' questions, including several about how Google will react to competition from Microsoft and others. Brin, whose company has a philosophy of "You can make money without doing evil," was particularly disarming and persuasive in his response.

Burning up time and energy worrying about what other companies are doing is a mistake, he said. Instead, think about where you and your enterprise are going, your ambitions and your hopes. Google, he said, will simply focus on the opportunities and possibilities made possible by the company's vast computing resources and its army of talented employees. And, said Brin, Google will continue to bring new and better computing tools to the public.

Google provides search services in some 100 countries. Brin said he was particularly proud of the honors Google has won for its language translation technology. Many students asked about Google's role in China, and some questioned whether the company was cooperating with the Chinese government, enabling the censorship of online information.

Brin said Google complied with the laws of the countries in which it operates, including laws in the United States and Germany that the company "does not necessarily support." He denied that Google was censoring information in China, maintaining that the government and not Google was responsible for blocking information through the use of firewalls. He said Google had been shut down a number of times in China and that ultimately, Google does good in China by making it possible for the Chinese people to have broad access to information.

Students asked Brin what role Google might play in ending the digital divide, the economic gulf between those who have computers and those who do not. Brin tantalized with several indirect responses, noting that computers today are relatively cheap – several hundred dollars buys a machine good for several years of use – but the cost of Internet access remains significant, eventually exceeding the cost of the hardware. Though he did not take that thought to the next level, Google is rumored to be considering becoming a major player in the wireless Internet market. This month, for instance, Google offered to blanket the City of San Francisco with wireless Internet access at no cost to the city or to users.

Internationally, many organizations have taken on the mission of extending Internet access to the populations of poor countries. While applauding these efforts, Brin said he believed that they would be even more successful, but for the fact that those behind the efforts usually "are embarrassed to make a profit." Brin said a modest profit would generate revenue that could provide a multiplier effect, allowing growth, the creation of jobs, and perhaps innovation.

Google itself has a philanthropic arm, and company cofounders Brin and Page spell out their hopes for it at Google.org. The site, still under development, bears this simple message from the Google cofounders: "We hope that someday this institution will eclipse Google itself in overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems."


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