How India got Schmidten by Google

Schmidt steers clear of contentious issues.

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By Saurav Sen

NEW DELHI: It’s been a tale of two victories and two maiden visits. When Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wound up his maiden trip to India on Thursday evening, he must have been just as smug and satisfied as the Indian cricketers were last week while exiting the Mohali cricket stadium after thrashing the Australians at home for the third time in a row. The cricketers had excelled and won. So did Schmidt. Even the critics would admit, Google’s three-day charm offensive had been beautifully scripted and very well-orchestrated. Such was the high profile positioning of the visit — with the government, online corporatedom and media alike — that even Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s maiden visit to India got drowned in the din.

Eric Schmidt; photo credit: google.com
Eric Schmidt; photo credit: google.com

Schmidt’s first ever visit was primarily to address the Big Tent Activate Summit — a Google and Guardian co-hosted roadshow which started in Europe some years ago, and found its way to the Indian capital for the first time. He spoke to Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger, quite a bit in jest, which the audience lapped up. The rub-off on India’s aspiration to be an internet superpower, seemed complete in the three days Schmidt spent in the country.

It was only natural that the former CEO and figurehead of the world’s largest Internet company attracted the cream of Indian media and Internet space. For the rest, Schmidt himself reached out – from Union Communications and Information technology minister Kapil Sibal to Prime Minister’s Technology Advisor, Sam Pitroda, and even to President Pranab Mukherjee. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and of late the poster boy of Indian politics, was roped in for a Google + hangout session. It couldn’t have got any more high-profile than this. Entrepreneurs, both present and future, had already rubbed shoulders with Schmidt, first in Bengaluru on Tuesday and in Delhi on Wednesday. Senior editors got their turn over breakfast on Thursday.

Schmidt was the Internet’s most vocal evangelist in the garb of a professor, who started off gustily, asking “Which internet would India choose?” in an edit page article in The Times of India, on the morning of his arrival. That set the tone of his interviews that followed. India has got its priorities wrong, he said in an interview, pointing at the government’s complacency and teaching a lesson or two at every step. Every word of what Schmidt said made perfect sense. Every logic and reasoning passed muster. There are roughly 600 million mobile phone users in India, there are about 130 million Internet users, but there are only about 20 million broadband users. So by any definition, India is under-penetrated. And in our book we talk a lot about the importance of the next 5 billion. There are only 2 billion people on Internet in the world today. And many of those 5 billion would be coming from India. So imagine a situation 5 to 10 years from now. When there are a billion people on the Internet, will they be significantly different from the first 100 million users? I’m sure there will be many more languages and they won’t be so English-focused.”

When the professor is right, students bow and listen. So did the ministers, policymakers, entrepreneurs over three days. It almost seemed that India needed Google. Of course India needs Google. And Twitter. Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and the others too. “India needs the Internet, but the Internet needs India too,” clarified Minister Kapil Sibal, in his keynote, perhaps alluding to Schmidt’s tone. That, when married to Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger’s jestful quip to Schmidt, “ You are the Internet,” then made better reasoning for Schmidt’s keenness to grow a market, of which Google already controls 97 per cent. Google needs India for its next big growth story. It was as much business, as it was Internet evangelism. And nobody seemed to mind. The awe of the brand only got nods of appreciation from the audience.

Amid all his hard talking and vision articulations, however, Schmidt steered clear of contentious issues. The recent privacy violation verdict in the United States, or the impending anti-trust verdict in the European Commission are blots that Google loves not to mention. Google’s ambitions of entering into vertical business domains such as travel and maps have had repercussions in the US. Google has been accused of burying competitors deep in its search engine rankings in categories such as local information, travel, shopping in favour of its own products. Expedia, Nextag, Yelp, Foundem — the list of complainants isn’t too nondescript. There is no reason to believe that Indian businesses, too, won’t get hit by Google’s vertical expansion plans. The core accusation is of unfair practice — overriding automated algorithms with discretionary intervention to favour its own properties. Interestingly, commenting on the future of search and page ranks, Schmidt said on Thursday, “Our algorithms incredibly sophisticated. But ultimately, we have to make a choice, who’s first, who’s second and who’s third. Computers are very good with infinite memory problems or needle-in-the haystack problems, they are very bad in judgment or human thinking.”

At a time when the Competition Commission of India is probing two cases of misuse of dominance, filed by Bharatmatrimony.com and CUTS International – the first such suits against Google in India, the hype over Schmidt’s visit has certainly thrown a veil of perception management, well done at that, which could, in some subtle ways, conceal the blemishes of conduct and highlight the beauty of Google’s compelling persona. But, honestly, good show! (Global India Newswire)

Saurav Sen is a Digital Media Consultant and Commentator

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