(This is part one of a four-part 'September' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society.)
This will perhaps be the only column in the year-long "History Matters” series where the authors have picked up an event from a place 12,341 kilometres away from Delhi. This month in 1998, two "nerds” from Stanford University formally launched 'Google'. The authors have not picked this event because an Indian origin Sundar Pichai heads it. That’s the least of the reasons.
In any case, so many professionals of Indian origin are CEOs of American multinationals that it is no longer noteworthy news. The reason is the profound impact Google has had on India in the 25 years of its existence.
No doubt Google has changed almost every country in the world. But it has played a particularly significant role in the internet and digital revolution in India.
The Genesis Of Google
Before delving into that, let's take a quick look look at how Google started; for those who are curious and yet don’t know. Larry Page, the son of upper-middle-class academicians from Michigan, landed up at the Stanford University to do his PhD in 1995.
Sergey Brin, the prodigious son of immigrants from Russia, was already there and became the "guide” who took the fresh intake on a tour of the university campus and the city of San Francisco. It is during this guided tour that the two first met argued and found each other “obnoxious”. But then they kept meeting as Page decided to do his PhD on the still nascent World Wide Web.
He devised an algorithm called PageRank in collaboration with Brin in 1996. Both found that their search engine was far superior to the existing ones. Encouraged by professors and peers, Page and Brin formally launched Google in September 1998. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The numbers boggle the mind. Google is visited about 90 billion times every month and continues to control more than 90% of the search engine market.
Of course, the arrival and explosion of new technologies and tools like Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT have made many wonder about the future of the search engine. But that is beyond the expertise of the authors who have both started using ChatGPT with intriguing results.
Even nowadays, 85% of those who use Google (which is virtually all humans with access to a smartphone or an internet connection) use it at least three times a day. No other company or institution has become such an integral part of the professional and personal life of a 21st-century individual.
How Google India Impacted Access to Information
What about India? Well, two interesting numbers indicate the depth of interface between the two. Close to 30% of the engineers of Google who are directly involved in cutting-edge research and development in AI are based in India, which is also the largest operational base for Google.
Recently, Google has committed USD 10 billion to an India digitisation fund to partner with the government of India and other private players as the digital revolution blooms further in India. While the company doesn’t share the actual numbers, those who follow the sector reckon that about 35,000 people of various skill levels are working for Google in India. But the real impact goes beyond numbers.
Google is ubiquitous in India because the services it offers are in multiple Indian languages. You want access to news in your mother tongue. Google News has it for you. In fact, it is Google that started the process of completely transforming access to news and fan the news business across the world.
You could access news, commentary, and opinion from multiple souls across the world. While it has enriched the lives of consumers, it has not bore good news for media platforms that have seen advertising revenue seep away at an alarming rate.
Many quality platforms now have a "paywall” where content can be accessed via Google search only if you are a paid subscriber or are willing to pay for a one-time access to exclusive content. But an overwhelming majority of those who search for news simply refuse to pay for content. They skip the platform that asks for money. Some smart geeks have even found ways to sneak past the "paywalls”.
Google has done something similar in the world of academia and research. In a matter of a few years, Google became the largest library in the world. A person doing research on any topic in India could use Google to access the best available research in the form of books and journals.
How Android Became a Gamechanger
Of course, most of this high-quality research is now behind paywalls. There are dozens of other things that Google does for us in our day-to-day lives including Google Maps; not to forget the ubiquitous Gmail.
But two things related to Google have had a much more profound impact on India. Currently, there are close to 750 million operational smartphones in India. A small proportion of that is the “high-end” Apple phones that very few Indians can afford.
Now, iPhones operate on the iOS operating system that is the exclusive domain of Apple. All other smartphones in India (and the world) operate on the Android system that is controlled by Google. So, Google is just about your desktop or laptop or even search. The credit for all the wonderful things that you do on a daily basis on your smartphone goes to Google.
Not many Indians are aware of this fact. It can be convincingly argued that the digital payments revolution in India, so admired during the recent G20 Summit rides on the back of the Google-created ecosystem.
There are about 10 billion digital transactions per day, most of them via the India-created Unified Payments Interface (UPI). There are ways in which UPI transactions can be done without the internet and a smartphone. But for the moment, it has the Android operating system as the backbone.
Even the immensely successful JAM trinity used for seamless transfer of direct benefit transfers worth billions of dollars every month depends on the Android ecosystem in many ways.
To give credit to India, it has been smart enough to leverage Google and Android in a way that even G7 countries have not been able to do.
The Controversies Around Google’s Operations
The ticket bookings, online transactions, and digital payments made through your smartphone are via the Android operating system. Tens of millions of Apps are available in the Google Play Store. And Google has a monopoly of access to them.
In fact, there is a running feud between App developers and Google India with the former accusing Google India of predatory and discriminatory practices. In March 2023, the Competition Commission of India imposed a fine of more than Rs 1,300 crores on Google India for exploiting its dominant position with the Android operating system (The European Union has imposed a fine of over USD 4 billion on Google for the same reasons). The ironic and interesting thing is that the authors found these news reports during a Google search!
But the most dramatic impact that Google has had in India is by way of YouTube. India is the largest market for YouTube in the world with close to 500 million users actively surfing through tens of millions of videos on a daily basis.
The Role of YouTube in Helping Build Successful Careers
There is no aspect of life in India that has not been touched by Google. Students access tutors of their choice on any subject through YouTube. Hundreds of thousands of good living and yoga instructors offer their services through YouTube. More self-declared chefs cook up a bewildering variety of Indian cuisine and dishes on YouTube.
Intrepid travellers take you to esoteric destinations through their YouTube videos. Self-proclaimed investment and stock market experts "guide” you on how to get the most out of your investments. Sports coaches offer useful training and tips through YouTube videos. The list is endless.
In the process, literally, hundreds of thousands of otherwise unknown Indians have become millionaires as their YouTube videos have attracted millions of subscribers.
Even journalists who have lost their jobs for one reason or another on legacy media platforms have become YouTube news and opinion entrepreneurs. Many now earn multiple times more than what they took home as a salary!
Big Tech & AI Developers As Showrunners
There is yet another technology giant that straddles India. It is called Meta that was first launched by Mark Zuckerberg in 2006. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp together have “control” over the communication activities of more than 1 billion Indians.
One can say that Mark Zuckerberg has far more influence on social & political discourse and “narrative building” than Larry Page & Sergey Brin who are anyway no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Alphabet, the holding company that controls Google. Sunder Pichai does that job.
To that extent, Zuckerberg could possibly have far more influence on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Yet, invisible to us, it is Google that has seeped into our daily lives and become an integral part in ways we are not even aware of.
As mentioned earlier, there is hardly any aspect of our daily lives that is not touched by Google and its ecosystem. Besides, Meta has control over communication tools that can be replicated anytime and threaten the existence of Meta. Google is a different beast and not prone to passing fads and fancies.
Sure, ChatGPT poses a huge threat to Google at the moment. But the war over AI is still raging with Google investing tens of billions of dollars in AI every year, a substantial chunk of which is in India.
But even as technology giants like Google battle it out in the frontiers of technology, Indians face profound dilemmas. On one hand, companies like Google have played a big role in bridging the digital divide that once deprived Indians, on the other, new frontiers like AI, Robotics, Big Data, machine learning, and the likes will also mean that the average Indian will be stripped effectively of all privacy. Questions and concerns over giants like Google controlling our lives and privacy remain unanswered.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)