Investor Thiel Goes on the Attack in Debate With Google’s Schmidt

Photograph by Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm Tech

Eric Schmidt, on the left, and Peter Thiel debated at Fortune's tech conference in Aspen, Colorado, last night.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt were asked to take the stage last night to debate. But maybe Thiel heard “berate” instead.

The early investor in Facebook dominated the discussion with denigrations of Google’s business. Schmidt defended his positions but did not take the same sort of direct shots that Thiel did. The crowd at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado, was thoroughly entertained.

“Eric, you do a fantastic job as Google’s minister of propaganda,” Thiel said early on. He described Google’s search engine as a monopoly, and said, “It’s quite legal to have a monopoly as long as you don’t abuse it.”

Thiel also said Google prefers computers to people in many cases, meaning it does not always do what’s best for consumers.

In the wide-ranging discussion, Thiel said the Arab Spring was driven mainly by an increase in food prices, and he criticized Schmidt for giving social networks any credit for catalyzing the uprising.

“It’s smug and complacent” to do so, said Thiel. Schmidt agreed that social media was not the primary driver.

The one commendation Thiel had for Google was that it has made more investments in long-term businesses than most technology companies. He cited asteroid mining initiatives that are backed by Google executives, but added, “Maybe that’s just part of the propaganda ministry.”

Thiel said Google, like most others in its industry, hasn’t gone far enough. Google should not be sitting on a huge pile of cash, he said. Google has $50.2 billion in cash and equivalents, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Why don’t you spend it on doing more in tech?” Thiel asked. “You’re out of ideas.”

Schmidt cited difficulties in hiring talented software engineers and government regulations as obstacles to making more investments. “What you discover in running these companies is that there are limits beyond cash,” he said.

Thiel, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not convinced.

“The search technology was developed a decade ago,” he said. (Actually, it’s more like 16 years ago.) “It’s like a bank.”

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