Matt Brittin: The oarsman facing an Olympian task to defend under-fire Google’s reputation

ALEX LAWSON

For a man who’s rather a big fish at Google, the search engine isn’t very kind to Matt Brittin. Type in his name and up pops a series of apologies, tricky news stories and his public humiliation at the hands of the aggressive Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Perhaps it’s not surprising for someone charged with being the “human face” at arguably the world’s most mechanised businesses — from battling terrorist content to tackling paedophilia, his in-tray is eye-watering.

Brittin runs Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the Silicon Valley giant and, further down the search rankings, boasts a place in the Seoul 1988 Olympics British rowing squad to his name.

His best honour was a bronze at the World Rowing Championships, and he was thrice on the losing team representing Cambridge in the Boat Race. “My first Boat Race we were expected to win and we had torrential rains and very stormy weather — we filled up with water,” he says. The race became famous, known as the Oxford Mutiny, as Brittin’s rivals overcame infighting to emerge victorious.

The 49-year-old’s athleticism has left its mark in his corner office in the Bloomsbury block that currently houses the tech behemoth. A frosted pane with silhouettes of rowers stands behind him and he uses a stand-up desk, as years as an oarsman have given the 6ft 3in chief back pain. A collection of objects also dots the room: a Doctor Who Tardis-shaped teapot; a BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Raspberry Pi; Rio Ferdinand’s latest book and a study on Steampunk. It’s clearly carefully put together but feels geeky, rather than the forced cool of many a tech lair.

He’s rangy with a crop of grey-flecked hair, Gary Lineker lugholes and wide brown eyes. His smartish blue slacks and shirt add to his English chappiness. Mark Zuckerberg he ain’t.

It’s another awkward time for the globe’s tech giants. After the shocking bomb fireball at Parsons Green, they’ve been taking a kicking for the ease with which extremist content can be found online. Despite threats from governments around the globe, hate-preacher videos remain accessible, and just this week Home Secretary Amber Rudd accused tech experts of being “patronising” and “sneering” at politicians.

​Brittin defends his work: “We’ve made quite a lot of progress but it is challenging. It’s usually a man talking to a camera about politics and that’s quite hard to define — with something like pornography, we can all agree what is and isn’t pornography.” He says Google is training staff and machines to identify extremist content better. He points out it’s spending $5 million to counter extremism — not much considering Google notched up $89.5 billion in revenues last year.

It’s just one element of a vast role that involves meeting with governments, advertisers and users across the region. One day is spent studying how to bring the internet to parts of Africa, the next developing basic digital training programmes for the entrepreneurs of Italy and Spain. He spends time in Brussels and calls EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager a “tough, experienced and smart politician”.

In June, she slapped Google with a €2.42 billion fine for abuse of its search dominance in favour of its shopping service. After an eight-year process, Brittin says resignedly: “While we disagree with the findings, we actually just want to get on with… innovating and building products.”

The Surrey-born businessman’s career has meandered like the Thames he rows on. His first job was packing pilchards in a Sainsbury’s warehouse (he’s now a non-executive director at the retailer) and his early career was defined by trying to make it with the oars. He plied his trade as a surveyor, hitting the water first thing and after work.

When he reluctantly gave up on sport, two years at the London Business School led him to McKinsey, the consultancy whose spider web creeps across much of corporate Britain. Brittin took a keen interest in media and tech, taking him on to a strategy gig at Daily Mirror newspaper owner Trinity, and ultimately to Google (after flirting with a job with this paper) in 2007.

Does a former newspaperman feel guilty working for a business that has savaged their profits? “Journalism is super-important. We’ve been trying to do a lot on making what you publish work better on mobile, protecting papers from attacks that deny service, making money online as the readership is migrating.” Those who’ve had their work summarily plagiarised, and then advertised against, boosting Google’s revenues, may not appreciate his proffered help.

The married father of two boys became Google’s UK boss after a couple of years and, in 2014, took on his current role. But it was his appearances before the PAC, starting in 2012, which have defined his public image. He was called to defend Google’s low tax contribution, and the car-crash hearing is wince-inducing (and available to watch on Google’s YouTube). Brittin was angrily quizzed on the firm’s structure and what he earned, which he claimed he didn’t know off the top of his head.

Cue much derision and many newspaper headlines. “That setting is not always the easiest… I was asked that question a number of times. It was in the first minute of the hearing and I felt that it was not really in the scope for a hearing about tax so I respectfully declined to give a figure,” he says. And now? Surely it’s in the scope of a profile interview? He laughs, blows out his cheeks. “Do we really want to make this about that? What I earn is a private matter. I have a salary and a bonus if I do well. And that’s it. In this country, that’s the norm, I’m not ashamed of it.”

And what about that tax bill? Last year, Google agreed a controversial deal with HMRC to stump up £130 million in back taxes, and followed that up by paying £36 million on UK revenues of £1 billion, a figure labelled a “national disgrace” by the political Left.

“On tax,” he says, with the air of a man revising a well-thumbed script, “we take our responsibilities seriously.” His argument goes that the best way to pay more UK tax is by growing and investing here, and that the establishment — not Google’s opaque structure — is to blame. “It’s very clear that the system needs reform and the Government and others are working on that,” straight-bats Brittin.

Google’s more conciliatory tone has not been enough to calm Brittin’s old adversary on the PAC, Margaret Hodge MP. “He is very suave, incredibly self-confident, verging on the arrogant,” she rages. “I found him oily in the way he seemed to avoid being honest that the financial arrangement of the company was set up for tax purposes. I’ll admit, I’m not top of Google’s invite list.”

But Sainsbury’s chairman David Tyler, who hired Brittin to the retailer’s board in 2010, rides to his defence: “Google are lucky to have him leading them in Europe, fronting up to the regulatory issues. I don’t suppose it’s much fun being the punchbag, and he takes it extremely well. He’s an outstanding guy, far-sighted with a lively sense of humour.”

A dark cloud hangs over London’s tech sector. Brexit threatens to stem the flow of talent and investment into Silicon Roundabout and beyond. “I’m concerned about colleagues and friends who have built their lives here and now don’t know if they can stay. Like everyone else, we would prefer clarity,” says Brittin. “Let’s put aside Brexit, it’s clearly going to be turbulent — but if you look at the big picture I’m optimistic.” That picture includes an extra 1.6 billion people globally coming online by 2020 and the UK’s rapidly growing prowess in machine learning.

There’s also the investment in a huge, £1 billion “groundscraper” in King’s Cross to house 7500 “Googlers”. It will feature plenty of the company’s famous flourishes — basketball courts, football pitches, a running track and sleep pods — and work begins next year. For Brittin, that won’t disrupt his mission: “What Google is trying to do is build products that help billions of people make the most of the digital world.”

After 10 years, any signs of itchy feet? “I think helping people harness technology for good is something I could happily do for the rest of my life,” he beams. But he might be a punchbag for a while yet.

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