Does Alphabet’s CEO have the right to be forgotten?

Google CEO Larry Page takes questions from the audience during a news conference at the Google offices in New York, Monday, May 21, 2012. Google’s…
Google CEO Larry Page takes questions from the audience during a news conference at the Google offices in New York, Monday, May 21, 2012. Google’s…
Image: AP/Seth Wenig
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In the age of Google, it feels harder than ever for anyone to disappear. Even the most mundane of digital trails are left behind us. Yet none other than the parent company’s very own co-founder and chief executive Larry Page seems to be pulling off the ultimate vanishing act.

Page, the 10th richest person in the world, according to Forbes, has not participated in an earnings call or a product launch since 2013. Nor has he done a press interview since 2015. Neither co-founder Sergey Brin nor Page has yet to conduct a Google town hall with employees this year, Buzzfeed noted, in what may be the longest town-hall absence of the pair in the company’s history.

Page’s absenteeism reached a peak last September at a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in technology. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey testified. But Page’s presence was nothing more than a Clint Eastwoodian empty chair.

As Alphabet’s CEO (Google’s parent company that was formed after a 2015 reorganization), Page is one of the most powerful people in the world. Critics argue that his outward absenteeism comes at a time when his corporate creation, 98,000-employees strong, could really use him.

People familiar with the company say Page is not on his private island sipping cocktails with little umbrellas, but rather he’s still working with Alphabet’s passion projects and just keeping a lower public profile. “Enabling Larry to focus on the Other Bets [Google’s catch-all term for endeavors like Waymo’s self-driving technology and Loon’s balloon-based internet connectivity] and long-term, technical problems is exactly what Alphabet was set up for,” an Alphabet spokesperson said in a statement. The company declined a request to interview Page.

Does Google’s CEO have the right to be forgotten?

Page has long been perceived as more of a brilliant, introverted research maven and dreamer-in-chief than a CEO who gets his high off executive-management org charts or investor briefings.

In some respects, he set the stage for his own slow, stepping away. In a 2013 third quarter earnings call, Page said: “I wanted to let you know that going forward, I won’t be joining every earnings call. Patrick [Pichette, Google’s Chief Financial Officer] and Nikesh [Arora, Google’s Chief Business Officer] do a great job covering our business each quarter, and they will continue to do that great work. I know you would all love to have me on, but you’re also depending on me to ruthlessly prioritize my time for the benefit of the business, and I’m very confident you’re in good hands with Patrick and Nikesh.”

Others feel differently.

Page’s prolonged public absence “is really terrible corporate governance,” said Michael Santoro, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. “It’s not a good look for the CEO of Alphabet to be wealthy and powerful enough to do what most users of Google can’t do. That’s more than ironic—it goes to the heart of the issue of managing Alphabet. CEOs are leaders and the public and investors have expectations of them that go beyond technical matters. They’re the leaders of a company and the public face of a company. How they conduct themselves is very much of interest to shareholders.”

To be sure, things at Alphabet in terms of the numbers are strong. The stock price under Page’s leadership continues to soar. Analysts rate the company a strong buy. Google’s core advertising business shows little sign of ceasing to print money, which makes up some 85% of Alphabet’s revenue.

The original thinking of Alphabet’s October 2015 restructuring was that it separated Google’s core internet businesses from its “moonshot” divisions, making matters “cleaner and more accountable,” Page said at the time.

The reorganization also placed Page as Alphabet’s CEO and Brin as its president. When the reorganization was announced, Sundar Pichai was named as the CEO of Google. As of the end of last year, Page—with Brin and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt—owned 92.8% of Alphabet’s outstanding Class B common stock, which represented 56.5% of the voting power, according to the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Page, with Brin and Schmidt “therefore have significant influence over management and affairs,” according to the company’s SEC filings. Page also sits on Alphabet’s board of directors, which, like any board, is tasked with a company’s oversight.

Then, there’s health. In 2013, Page disclosed that he had vocal cord paralysis, which impaired his ability to speak and, possibly, to breathe. It was a condition he’d lived with since the mid-1990s and makes it difficult to speak above a whisper. Page has also said that he had been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to chronic inflammation in the thyroid. It’s a leading cause of hyperthyroidism and symptoms may vary, but can include fatigue, memory loss and depression. Page has donated to vocal research and, at the time, said that he was “fully able” to do all he needed to at work and at home.

People familiar with Alphabet’s board said that Page is attending meetings and continues to work with Pichai closely.

The company itself noted Page’s importance as a leader in its 2018 filings to regulators. “Our future success depends in a large part upon the continued service of key members of our senior management team. In particular, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are critical to the overall management of Alphabet and its subsidiaries” and that they, along with Pichai, “play an important role in the development of our technology. They also play a key role in maintaining our culture and setting our strategic direction.”

That leaves Pichai to spearhead day-to-day operations and Page to revel in Alphabet’s stealthier and loftier ambitions, like its secret research lab, X; Calico, the branch of Alphabet that deals with aging and death; Google Fiber, which is attempting to network more cities; or Alphabet’s various efforts in artificial intelligence. Such radical creativity is part of what made Google Google, yet can be challenging to cultivate as companies grow.

Daniel Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, Google’s urban infrastructure unit, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek in September that Page had visited Sidewalk’s Toronto project in July of last year, but some would like more than secondhand confirmation that Page is actively managing Alphabet. “This is a large, publicly-traded company with a vast corporate empire spanning the entire world,” Santoro said. “It has a sophisticated business model that’s evolving with all sorts of public dimensions and considerations around the world. It’s a complicated enterprise to run. Larry Page is the CEO of this company and we’re not hearing from him. That’s a problem, because Alphabet needs to have a CEO who is not only addressing these issues, but is doing so in a public manner that reassures investors and the public at large.”

Another reason for Page’s silence, at least lately, may be tangentially #MeToo related. Page lies at the heart of criticism over how Alphabet has handled sexual harassment complaints, namely that of Android software creator Andy Rubin.

Documents tied to the lawsuit surrounding the Rubin case claim that Page paid a $150 million stock grant and a $90 million  “rubber stamp” severance payout to Rubin when he left in 2014. “There are inaccurate claims in recent court filings about our governance,” an Alphabet spokesperson said in a statement, “including the false claim that Mr. Page bypassed the approval of our Board’s independent compensation committee.”

Louise Renne, the lawyer representing shareholders who allege that Page and other executives and board members inappropriately handled complaints of sexual harassment, is among those who says she doesn’t know where Page is. He hasn’t been deposed yet and won’t be scheduled to for some time.

As the internet giant reels through its own #MeToo scandal, the lack of leadership on high is frustrating many. An estimated 20,000 Googlers staged a walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. Page was nowhere to be found.

“We want to make sure that there are some real changes in the workplace there,” Renne said. “He cannot continue to be rewarding sexual harassment or having a double standard where those high up are rewarded for their contact and those lower down the totem pole, so to speak, are asked to leave pushed out the door.”

Then, there’s the Nikola Tesla theory. Page has long spoken of Tesla as one of his heroes, but a tragic one, as Tesla struggled throughout his career to have his research funded.

“You don’t want to be a Tesla,” Page told Forbes in 2008. “He was one of the greatest inventors, but it’s a sad, sad story. He couldn’t commercialize anything, he could barely fund his own research. You’d want to be more like Edison. If you invent something, that doesn’t necessarily help anybody. You’ve got to actually get it into the world; you’ve got to produce, make money doing it so you can fund it.”

Under Alphabet’s current structure, Google’s advertising operation continues to churn out money that, among other things, allows for its long-shot bets to be tested. Page has focused on these higher-level efforts, pursuing multiple breakthroughs in much the same way Edison moved from one new technology to the other.

Yet even as he made money from his enterprises, Edison emerged from his lab. And, for now, many will be left to speculate when Page will emerge from his.