In this Idea Exchange moderated by Deputy Editor Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, Google India Managing Director Rajan Anandan talks about the impact of the Internet on urban voters, data requests the company gets from the government, and Google’s mission of ‘digitising’ India
SUBHOMOY BHATTACHARJEE: There is a lot of buzz around social media in these elections, and you are also the chairman of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). What was the standard you used to say that India has 213 million Internet users? How credible is that number?
IAMAI, together with IMRB, does annual research among thousands of respondents in urban, metro and rural areas. That’s how we got the 213 million number. It’s a very robust number, which is validated through carrier data as well as figures provided by companies such as ours. The quarterly financial reports of telecom companies report the number of active mobile Internet users they have. So if we add up the numbers of the top five telcos, it’s about a 150-160 million active mobile Internet users. And we know from our own data that there are over 200 million users.
What’s interesting is that it took 10 years for India to go from 10 million Internet users to a 100 million, but three years to go from 100 million to 200 million. Today we are adding about 4 million new users a month. So by end of this year, India would have 250 million users. And by the end of next year, even at the current growth rate, we should have over 300 million. So, for an Internet company, India is important and strategic. Regardless of where an Internet company is launched today, India very quickly becomes a large user base for it. So, Sequoia India invested in Truecaller, a Scandinavian start-up. This is the first time that it has ever happened. And the reason is that though Truecaller is a global platform, India is its largest user base.
India is one of the few markets in the world where we are seeing Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 happening together. In developed Internet markets like the US or UK and even China, the Web had two distinct phases. There was a Web 1.0 which was Yahoo, Amazon, Google — all of which were launched in the ’90s. Web 2.0 is a social, mobile, local and video phenomenon — YouTube, smartphones, all those came up in the late 2000s. In India, all of that is at the same time. Everything that took about 20 years to happen in the west, in India, it is going to happen in the next five to seven years.
This year, the number of smartphone users in India will double from 70 million to 130-140 million. So if you think about the current election, our view, based on some research we did four-five months ago, is that urban India is going to be significantly influenced by the Internet. Forty per cent of registered voters in urban India are on the Internet. And our research said that 42 per cent at that time were undecided. Whether it will have an impact or not, we will know after the elections, but the activity levels are quiet stunning.
Sunil Jain: At one time, Google was talking of speaking to the Election Commission about putting a lot of data out there, and then some people said it would compromise security and the whole thing just collapsed. So what exactly happened?
We had partnered with the Election Commission to take existing public data and make it much more easily accessible. For example, if you put your voter registration number, we can tell you where your nearest polling booth is. So, that was the partnership we had announced and then as you said, there were multiple people who felt that it would compromise security, so we didn’t do that. It was unfortunate because it would have been a very valuable service for the voters.
Sunil Jain: Edward Snowden has accused Google of giving the US government access to your data. I want your comments on that. Also, has Google come out with a new policy to take on the possibility of someone snooping on our emails?
First, we take our users’ data security very seriously. No government can have access to the data and we have never given backdoor access to the US government or any government in the world. Larry Page, our CEO, has been very clear about this.
Secondly, when governments do request data, we have a well-documented process of how we review that data and where it merits the case, we do release the data. The data that we release to the government is published on Google’s transparency report. So you can go online and it will tell you exactly how many requests we got in every country and what we complied to. So this whole idea that there is a backdoor to Google, and Google is being paid to give information to the US government is absolutely incorrect. In response to your second question, well, when you sign up for any Google service, there is a set of service requirements where you can say, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this or that’, etc.
But what we have found is that a lot of people do not read the fine print. So we are trying to make it even clearer through notifications.
Anant Goenka: A Google researcher recently said that 21 or 25 major news organisations around the world have a cyber security risk. Are governments putting pressure on services like Google or Yahoo to get data out?
In the Google transparency report, you’ll find a large number of requests from specific governments around the world, including India. US is number one and India is number two. Over the last three to four years, the number of requests has been increasing every year. That is explainable, since we were 30 million users four years ago, and now we are 200 million. So as more and more people get online, more and more reasons the governments might have. So in terms of whether governments are sending more requests to Google for data, the answer is yes. How we deal with that is very important. We have a process to review every single data request. If the data request has merit, say, it violates the local law or our service agreement, then we would comply. But if it doesn’t, then we wouldn’t. So at times, there is friction between Google and specific governments because there is request for data which we won’t provide.
Sunil Jain: If the government asks you for my mail, can you give it to them?
If there is a court order, a valid one. Say, there is a specific request from any user or government to take content down from YouTube. If the content violates local law or we get a court order, we will take it down. If it violates our terms of service, we will take it down. Child pornography — we will take it down.
Sunil Jain: If the government wants, will you take it down?
It’s not if the government wants, it has to be a court order.
Ritu Sarin: What kind of data does India ask Google for, and who sends the request from the government?
The requests relate to all kinds of data. We get requests from local police authorities, from the defence department, from the home ministry, and across all different government agencies — state-level, local-level, central-level.
Ritu Sarin: When you say court order, do you mean the order of the home secretary, which is what interception laws in India want?
It has to be a valid court order. Courts do give us orders sometimes to take content down. It’s not easy to do. Some local government can’t wake up someday and say they want to do something. They have to give us a court order.
Ritu Sarin: So if I have a lot of negative writing about me on Google, and I make a request to you to remove it, what would you do?
You send us a request and we will review it. If the content violates our terms of service or the local law, we’ll take it down. If it doesn’t, we will let you know, then you have the last option — which is to get a court order.
Ritu Sarin: What about personal slander?
It has to be proven. We get a lot of requests of defamation for satire. Satire doesn’t violate local laws.
Rishi Raj: Users access Internet through telecom operators. Some operators have started talking about revenue-sharing which has not been taken seriously at the regulatory level.
What’s your view on that and are you prepared for revenue sharing?
It is important to keep in mind the numbers. Telecom in India is a $40 billion industry. E-commerce in India is a $2.5 billion industry and the digital advertising industry, search, display and online classifieds is $800 million. So the money is still clearly in voice and data.
The more consumers use smartphones, the more bandwidth that they have, the more time they spend on the Internet, the more they consume. We are using Google Fiber to test the limit — can households really consume 100 mbps? Yes, if you give it to them. So, as consumers use more data, the carriers that provide the infrastructure to give that sort of data will be able to charge for it. I live in Chanakyapuri and I pay several thousand rupees to get broadband and I don’t get broadband. Will I pay Rs 10,000 to really get 10 mbps? You bet, so give it to me. Thus, telecom industry should tap into this appetite for data consumption. Also we should separate India from the rest of the world because in India there is a massive shortage of bandwidth. There are so many consumers who would like to consume broadband but cannot because there is a shortage.
Anant Goenka: How active are you in funding think-tanks, policy initiatives, or other offline activities?
There are different kinds of Internet markets — the nascent ones where Google’s mission is to accelerate the development of the Internet ecosystem, the well-developed ones, and those which do not have progressive policies. A lot of markets like India and Brazil are not very developed. Despite 200 million Internet users, only 20 per cent of the country’s population is online. Internet cannot transform India if only 20 per cent of the population has access to online services, so you will see us doing a lot of work with institutions, NGOs and the government in digitising India.
Anant Goenka: You are also getting into the content space, and are beyond a search engine now.
We are not in the content business. We are clear we don’t want to be in it. We are doing a huge amount of work to drive adoption of our products. Many companies do not know how to set up Hangouts, so we help them understand and set it up. Once you set it up for companies, they start using it frequently. Some political parties are very good at doing Hangouts.
SUBHOMOY BHATTACHARJEE: In India, a lot of what we see is Google-generated content. Specially in this election, a lot of debate is happening on Google products like YouTube. After the election, some parties would be sensitive about what information or content is circulating on Google.
Between the last election and this one, the number of Internet users has gone up. We have gone from having very few urban registered voters on the Internet to having half of them on the Internet. We have gone from having no social networks — last election, Facebook had 10 million users, in this election, it has almost 100 million.
We have gone from a non-existent YouTube to 60 million Indians on YouTube. Twitter not around to Twitter being around. So, more than what Google or Facebook has done, urban India is now on the Internet and for various reasons, they seem to be interested both in consuming and participating and having points of view. This election, the Internet will impact urban India. Next election, it will not be urban India, it will be India. 2018 will be India. 2018 will be 600-700 million Internet users, half of them on broadband networks, and 300-400 million smartphone users.
The content on the Internet is generated by users. So coming back to your question, let’s take getting consumers online. Most Internet users are coming on through mobile devices that cost less than Rs 6,000-7,000 — these did not exist three years ago. So what we had to ensure is low-cost Android devices that will allow users to get online.
India has the lowest cost of handsets in the world. We also doubled the number of Indian women on the Internet. We launched a new initiative called ‘Helping women get online’. We have aggregated content from women-oriented content partners. We are also getting people who are already online to stay online.
We started the online shopping festival called ‘Cyber Monday’. Why? Because only 20 million of the 200 million ever buy online. China has 550 million users, 250 million buy online. Now, we are working on how to get the non-video local language content. Only 70 out of the top 1,000 newspapers are online. Very few of the leading non-English magazines are online.
Archna Shukla: So this is all business development, isn’t it?
No, it’s market development, there is no revenue involved in any of this. But if you get half-a-billion Indians online, there will be monetisation. My point is that India needs to get the next 300 million people on the Internet. And the question for a company like Google is, ‘What are we doing to accelerate that?’, as opposed to ‘Can we come up with a new widget?’. Our widget is that we have Android and we have local area partners who make it at Rs 6,000-7,000.
How do we get partners to make Android at Rs 3,000-4,000? It’s quite unfortunate that only 30 per cent of Internet users in India are women. Kuwait has more percentage of women online. Isn’t that interesting — the Middle East has more women on percentage basis who are online than India?
Anushree Bhattacharyya: MotoG and MotoX have been retailed by Flipkart exclusively. At the same time, some companies like Canon are telling consumers not to buy products online. What are your views on that? Also, after Flipkart and Myntra, what is the next stage of e-commerce in India?
In 2012, 12 million users bought non-travel products online. In 2013, there were 20 million such users buying electronics, apparel, baby products, etc. For any brand, to not be online is a missed opportunity. MotoG had the most successful launch of any smartphone ever, that too on one e-commerce site only.
About where e-commerce will go, we are still in the first half day of the Test match. If you want to know where e-commerce will go in the next six to seven years, just look at China. Chinese e-commerce industry has now crossed $300 billion, it is bigger than the e-commerce industry in the US. Taobao, when it goes public, will be more valuable than Amazon. Taobao makes twice as much revenue as Amazon and is three times as big as eBay. And TaoBao is only in China.
Ashish sinha: When will Google Glass, and your other products developed in the US, come to India?
For Google Glass to work, you need bandwidth. The phone has to work, the Internet connection on the phone has to work and then maybe Glass will work. So we will launch our products in India at the right time. But it’s important to keep in mind that our mission is to get half a billion Indians on the Internet. Let’s take an example.
Small businesses that are online grow 50 per cent faster than small businesses that are offline. India today has 47 million small businesses; only 400,000 of them are online today. We helped 300,000 of them get online by giving them a free website, free domain name, free hosting, etc. So imagine what will happen to the Indian economy if we get 10 million businesses online. That is more important than a thousand Indians running around with Google Glass.
We are focussed on making the Internet valuable to the society. Take the NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) project of the HRD ministry. All IIT classes are recorded, and are uploaded on the NPTEL channel for any student in India who has an Internet connection to see. There are four million engineering students in India, only a few thousand of them go to the IITs. Today, any engineering student in India can attend virtually every single course taught at IIT Chennai.
Transcribed by Jayati Ghose