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A majority of the 400 million active internet consumers in India use Indian languages to navigate the web. They are the focus of technology behemoths such as Google. Caesar Sengupta, VP, Next Billion Users and GM of payment at Google, talks to Jyotika Sood about the corporation’s work in India and the controversies it is embroiled in. Edited Excerpts:
How important is India and Indian market for Google?
When we launched our operations in India in 2004-05, there were very few people online, PC penetration was extremely low and connectivity was a big constraint. But even 15 years back, India was an important country for us, and it was clear that in years to come - India will become one of the largest Internet user country in the world. So, we started investing in India very early. We are focused on enabling access to the Internet; creating more awareness and skilling people on how they could use the Internet to change their lives; and last but not the least, building experiences that address the needs, interests, and passions of the Indians coming online. Our mission in India is to bring the Internet alive by building a helpful Google for everyone in India.
Some of new products are Neighbourly - a hyper local answers app, Bolo - an Android app to help children improve their reading skills, Navlekha - we are working with Indian language publishers to bring more Indian language content online and building an Indian language web, which can be accessed through smart phones that just work in Indian languages with voice activated solutions.
How are small and medium businesses using Google?
Small medium businesses (SMBs) in India are the backbone of Indian economy, and we’re constantly innovating and building new opportunities for SMBs to gain from the growing digital economy. We have introduced a range of easy to use products to make it simpler for SMBs to start their own digital journeys.
Every month, Google connects people to businesses nearby more than 9 billion times, including over 1 billion phone calls and 3 billion direction requests to stores. Moreover, over 23 million Indian SMBs have built their web presence on Google Maps and are easily discoverable on Google Search. We have also launched digital unlocked, an offline and online training program for SMBs and since launch, 360,000 businesses have benefited from this initiative.
Can you share statistics on how many Indians use Google search engines?
There over 400 plus million active Internet users in India today and majority of them are Indian language users, and many of them are first time users of the Internet. And we’re thoughtfully building products that can help them get more out of the Internet. Overall Voice Search has grown by 270% YoY (2018); and voice searches in Hindi grew 400% YoY (2018). Google search engine journey started with typing text, followed by voice search and now picture search.
What kind of innovations is Google working on for Indian market?
In a world where the mobile phone has rewritten the rules of access, we are in a situation where the new adopters of the internet have different expectations and experience of connecting with the world – it’s very different from the earlier users of the internet. 44% of new internet adopters (2013 and 2017) came from just 11 countries - in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Our Next Billion Users is an initiative to a change - to steer the internet from ‘one size fits all’. We’re seeing that more and more searches are done in Indian languages, which include not only Hindi, but also Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi. And we’re evolving Search further to answer the needs of a multilingual audience and bring them rich, high quality information. The scope of this initiative spans the full journey of the new adopters, using the mobile phone as rails. We are focusing on products working across all devices, stay steady with network fluctuations, products that can be used, over voice or text, in the users’ first language to name a few.
India is planning to tax digital enterprises. How will it impact your free services?
We comply with all tax laws in India and pay all applicable taxes. The government implemented the equalization levy in June 2016 and we are complying with that too. As the rules evolve, we will continue to follow them.
If major countries decide to tax the platfor, will Google consider making its search engine a fee-based platform?
As a company we are committed to building products for everyone and are proud that by billions of people use these. Easy access to information through Google Search is hugely empowering. It is about discovery -- learning something new about the world, having fun, and getting inspired. And we have seen that come to life in India in different ways. One such example is of Internet Saathi program - where thousands of women in rural India are using information found on the web to help improve their lives and that of their families and communities. This has a huge socio- economic impact. So it’s not just about paid and free products; there is a huge incentive to make these products accessible to everyone. Having said that, we realise that there are specific use cases for subscription products, and we have products for that - but most of our products are available for free to users all over the world.
Are you working with the Indian government on any project?
Google is committed to India’s growth story for the long term. Apart from the partnership with Indian Railways to offer free public Wifi at railway stations, we are also working closely with Indian banking and financial sector to facilitate digital payments in India and contribute to the government’s vision of making India a cashless society. We are cooperating with the Central Water Commission to improve India’s flood forecasting systems by generating accurate inundation maps for flooding events.
Privacy is a serious concern. What ae you doing to address it?
We have always taken privacy and security very seriously. And we work hard to help keep the web safe for everyone. We feel privileged that billions of people trust products like Search, Chrome, Maps and Android to help them every day. We don’t take users’ trust for granted. We give users clear, meaningful choices around their data. Google will never sell any personal information to third parties. We use data to make products and services more user-friendly. For example, traffic data in Google Maps reduces gridlock by offering people alternate routes. Queries in Google Translate make translations more accurate for billions of people.
The European Commission has imposed fines totaling more than $9 billion on Google since 2017. Why are more countries viewing Google with suspicion?
We disagree with the EC’s Android decision and we are appealing to the EU General Court. This will be the first time that an independent judicial body will assess the merits of the case.
A shorter, edited version of this appearerd in print