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“Managing online privacy is up to us”: Google’s Bárbara Navarro

Spanish strategy executive for search giant talks about professional and personal challenges of role

Google’s Director of Strategy and Operations for Asia Pacific, Spaniard Bárbara Navarro is a high achiever and as demanding of herself as she is of others – overly so, she would say. She’s also a born leader and passionate about tackling new challenges.

Bárbara Navarro is Google’s Director of Strategy and Operations for Asia Pacific.
Bárbara Navarro is Google’s Director of Strategy and Operations for Asia Pacific.

Born in Madrid 42 years ago to a senior energy executive, she graduated in law at the Spanish capital’s Comillas University, studied an executive MBA at the prestigious IESE Business School and started working for Google in 2007. She is the mother of three girls aged three, six and 11 and lives in Hong Kong, from where she promotes the digital explosion in Asia – a vast region with a population of over four billion.

Politicians who are not up on technology are scared of tech companies with the power to engineer change

Both a marathon runner and a meditation buff, Bárbara recognizes the dilemma inherent in either operating under the censorship of the Chinese government or ignoring the massive Chinese market. But the Asian consumer is already setting the pace of digital innovation, she says, and it won’t be long before the big Chinese tech companies take the inevitable leap towards globalization.

Question. Google is much more than a search engine as became obvious from the political-diplomatic dispute that unraveled over its supposed omission of the label ‘Palestine’ on Google Maps. What is Google’s diplomatic strategy in regions riven by conflict?

Answer: Google’s strategy is to remain as neutral as possible. Our mission is to make information universally accessible and to make freedom of speech a principle that is respected, but it’s not always possible to avoid conflict.

Q. You describe yourself as both self-taught and a natural leader. How do those characteristics make your job easier?

A. They allow me to face challenges and not be afraid of making mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, including big ones, but the key is to take responsibility for them, correct them and learn from them. At times, I’ve managed my team badly, without knowing how to recognize their strengths and motivate them properly. I am very demanding of myself and, perhaps because of that, I have at times been overly demanding of others.

Q. Your life seems to have followed an unbroken course. You were born into a wealthy family and you were a good student with clear ideas. You graduated from prestigious universities, set your goals and worked on you skills until landing an important role.

A. That’s a simplification but it’s fairly accurate, although I have to say that there were a few setbacks on the way because I haven’t always been a good student and because I have had to invest a lot of energy, effort and determination to get where I am today.

Q. What childhood memory first comes to mind?

A. When I was six or seven years old, my family moved to America and I refused to learn English. But I needed to communicate with my new friends so I decided to teach them Spanish. Also, adventures with my three brothers. We formed a band without a lot of success [laughs]. And I still haven’t forgotten when they ganged up on me and chucked me out of the bedroom. It still hurts!

Q. You must have done something to make them behave like that. Maybe you tried to give them English classes…

A. Not at all. They were just that way inclined [laughs]. I think part of my personality was shaped right there. But I get on really well with them.

Q. How does a young mother with three children manage to become a senior executive at Google? How did you manage to break through the glass ceiling?

A. Through making personal and family sacrifices. My husband and children are pillars of energy and affection. We try to make sure the time we have together is quality time, although we don’t always achieve that ideal level!

"I don’t mind admitting moving to Google Asia has been much harder than I thought it would be," says Bárbara Navarro.

Q. Between work and family, is there any time left over for you?

A. I do make time for myself. I run, I meditate and I go out with my friends. I need that to keep balanced and sort out my ideas. Sport is part of my life because if I feel good physically, I’m better mentally too. Running is hard, but I’m very stubborn and it’s very satisfying to have pushed yourself to the limit. There’s also the moment of glory when you cross the finishing line.

Q. Why are so many senior executives addicted to running?

A. Because effort, pleasure and the ability to endure are all linked. There’s a clear correlation between the challenge of running and the challenge of work. In both cases, you have to push yourself mentally and test the limits of your capabilities. Over long distances, 80% is down to your mind and 20% is your body.

Q. So running has become a training ground for work?

A. You could see it like that, but effort, discipline and sacrifice also help me to juggle my career with family life and personal affairs. Life is like a marathon.

Q. Has the leap from Google Europe to Google Asia been a culture shock?

A. I don’t mind admitting that it has been much harder for me than I thought it would be – I have had a tough time. I underestimated what the change would entail. I have had to reinvent myself a little, unlearn some things and learn others.

Q. What have you had to unlearn?

A. “The idea that things and people can’t be so different in other parts of the world. In Asia, a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ don’t necessarily mean the same as they do here in Spain. For example, instead of directly rejecting an idea or project, you find that its development gets put on hold or meetings to move it forward get delayed. For a long time I was under the impression that I was not making myself understood.”

The average Asian is a very sophisticated, permanently connected consumer who is setting the pace. 

Q. How do you manage in meetings with senior officials in countries such as Saudi Arabia where women’s rights are not respected?

A. It’s a country that came under my remit, but I have not been there in a professional capacity, nor in others where women have to wear the veil. In hierarchical situations where women aren’t considered equal to men, meetings can be a real challenge.

Q. Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your sex?

A. Not as a general rule. Although there are noticeable differences in the treatment of women from one country to another, the established hierarchy is what dictates relationships in the workplace to the point where having executive power renders being a man or a woman irrelevant.

Q. What strengths can Google draw on when it comes to working within dictatorships?

A. The support of its users and a technology that is trying to change the world for the better. Our products try to be useful and build platforms for expressing opinion. That’s our view.

Q. Who is scared of Google?

A. Politicians who are not digital natives or don’t know about the use and potential of transforming technologies are scared not only of Google but of all tech companies with the power to engineer change.

Q. Is there any reason to fear new technology?

A. We should learn to use it and know what impact it can have on our lives. We seek to develop the best products, taking into account that consumers are demanding and the sector is extremely competitive.

Q. How do you respond to the charge by the European authorities that Google abuses its dominant position in the market?

"We have had long discussions about operating under censorship this because freedom of expression is in our DNA."

A. The charge is being investigated but there are other countries, such as Canada, that have decided Google doesn’t have a monopoly. Perhaps what’s missing is a proper grasp of the technology market where some authorities are concerned. In Europe, we need to learn to relax regulations so they don’t strangle innovation.

Q. What about the charges that Google has been dodging taxes?

A. We act in accordance with the tax laws in each of the countries in which we operate, but if politicians don’t think that’s enough, they only have to change the laws and we will abide by them. I think entities such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development would be perfect forums for establishing regulations. Everybody would be happier with an easier and more transparent system.

Q. On my phone, Google Maps knows where I’m going to be and when, given that Booking.com sends me the confirmation of a reservation by Gmail. Is keeping that information ethical in your opinion?

A. As soon as we download an application and accept the terms of use, we are authorizing this information to be stored. Data is fundamental to innovation and the development of new products. But managing our privacy is up to us.

Q. The internet is a jungle in which anyone can use lies to attack the reputation of another and then give the attack more prominence and increase damage by employing certain techniques. After the US elections, Google announced it was implementing measures against websites that were putting out misleading or false information. Are you also planning measures to defend the reputation of victims of libel?

A. Any user can ask Google to de-index a URL – the address of a web page, video or image on internet – but they need to justify their request. Google then evaluates whether to carry it out or not. Users can also ask us for the removal of content from other platforms such as Blogger, YouTube and Google+ but they should know that just because Google has de-indexed it, it won’t necessarily disappear from Internet. We advise users to go the source of the information and ask for its removal. If this happens, Google will no longer index it.

Q. So you have to wait for libelers and slanderers to voluntarily remove their slander? It’s as if you leave your rights to honor and privacy at the door when you enter the virtual universe of Internet.

A. There’s a form for de-indexing requests you can consult “How to remove content from Google” and follow the steps.

Q. So Google doesn’t consider itself responsible for the protection of those rights?

A. We are a search engine that collects information that already exists on Internet. We don’t create it.

Q. What do you think about the effect Google has had on journalism? Do you think the PageRank algorithm as it is currently designed is sufficiently respectful of the press when it ranks sites according to the number of hits and links rather than the quality of the content?

A. Google has had commercial and innovation agreements with the press for years. We have launched a project to train editorial offices in the use of technology and to collaborate with the industry in the creation of innovative products. We have a budget of €150 million to finance journalistic innovation projects.

Life is like a marathon. The effort, the discipline and the sacrifices help me to juggle my career with family life

Q. Is Asia overtaking Silicon Valley in digital innovation?

A. The cellphone connectivity that allows access to content and purchases on this side of the world – where more than 50% of its population lives – is greater than in the US and Europe. Countries such as India have ambitious entrepreneurial and digital programs. China has tech companies that are right up there and a market of more than 700 million people connected to the internet. The big change will come when these big companies go global and that’s around the corner. They will be able to tap into a billion more users from India and Indonesia, making Asia the key player in digital innovation. The average Asian is a very sophisticated, permanently connected consumer who is setting the pace. The selfie was born here.

Q. Government censorship is at work in many countries, posing the dilemma of whether to operate under these conditions or abandon these markets. Is it better to stay and offer at least some platform for freedom of expression than to withdraw?

A. We have had long discussions about this because freedom of expression is in our DNA. We believe that our presence provides people with opportunities and we fight against the removal of content that we believe falls within the framework of freedom of expression. Getting the balance right is not always easy.

Q. Google withdrew from China when it was announced that the Chinese government was investigating Google users. It doesn’t look as though the Chinese authorities have agreed to stop censoring content or keeping an eye on users, or limiting the field of Google Play. Are there negotiations in progress with a view to Google returning to China?

A. I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that right now. What I can say is that we run the risk of creating a bigger gulf between that part of humanity which can connect freely and people who are subject to all kinds of limitations. And that has consequences.

English version by Heather Galloway.