A row of camels greeted Google users on January 26 as the search engine celebrated India’s Republic Day with its by-now-famous doff of the hat, called the Doodle. The previous week, it helped the government launch a high-speed public wi-fi service at the Mumbai Central station as part of a nationwide campaign to provide data access. In 2014, it launched the Indian Languages Internet Alliance to make local language content become easily available, with a Hindi keyboard to match. Now all that sounds altruistic, though it is not. Every time a wi-fi user accesses the internet, chances are that she does a search that earns money for Google — whatever the language.
But the Stanford-born giant seems to have shown more finesse than its Harvard-bred rival Facebook, which has tied itself into knots as it pushes its Free Basics programme for free access to a stripped-down version of the internet — only to meet howls of protests from Net Neutrality activists. The feted pair of the digital age are both striving for market dominance based on reach and advertising revenue, but Google seems to be on stronger social ground in India, though not entirely out of the woods. It has faced the prying eyes of the Competition Commission of India (CCI), which charged it last year with abusing its dominance by using clauses in agreements with users that restricted them from using other search engines. This happened a year after the CCI fined it Rs 1 crore for not cooperating with a probe.
Unlike the rap on the knuckles that Facebook recently got from the telecom regulator, Google’s woes have been less glaring. In 2013, it faced a probe on whether its attempt to map cities were a security threat. In Europe, Google has faced both tax avoidance charges and accusations that it abused its search dominance. However, it is helping India get wi-fi access in 100 railway stations by the end of 2016. Overall, it is a tad ahead of Facebook in the game of perceptions — which, it must be said, is a snake-and-ladder affair. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s charm offensive last year, including a famous selfie featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not gone as far as his Google counterpart Sundar Pichai’s self-effacing humour in wooing the young in the land of his birth. Now, what has Facebook done to deserve this? Is the search monopoly less of an evil than a social network dominance? Maybe it is easier to “Poke” Facebook — to use the metaphor of the half-annoying, half-amusing tool one uses to keep in touch with Facebook friends. Maybe it needs an image makeover. Or, er, a status update.