Programmes like Kanaja, an encyclopedic portal devoted to compiling all the cultural resources in Kannada, don’t just make the Internet more relevant to speaking the language. They make the Internet culturally richer for everyone. The most striking Indian Internet innovations won’t come from big institutions or companies moving online, however. They will come from Indians solving local problems…
We are living in an unparalleled time for technological progress. In 10 years, it will be almost impossible to describe to any child in India what life was like before the Internet. Only about two billion of the world’s seven billion people have an Internet connection, and i believe the remaining five billion will get one in the next decade. Almost one billion of them will come online in India. They will have different needs from people online today and expect different things from the Internet. Now is the moment for India to decide what kind of Internet it wants for them: an open Internet that benefits all or a highly regulated one that inhibits innovation.
The past 10 years show that the safest economic, social and political bet is on openness. Where there is a free and open Web, where there is unbridled technological progress, where information can be disseminated and consumed freely, society flourishes.
I meet a lot of people who think the Internet wastes time with trivial content. I disagree. Just the past few months in India show that it enriches politics and the national debate. Finance minister P Chidambaram’s online hangout to discuss the budget and the Planning Commission’s interactive chat on India’s 12th five-year Plan showed how the Internet can drive serious, mature conversations over a distance that has never been possible before. Knowledge can be disseminated more widely than ever. The Internet has connected great teachers to villagers across remote parts of India, or brought foreign guests by video-chat into classrooms whose students may never leave the country. Indians use YouTube to access lectures from Ivy League professors.
Now is the moment for India to decide what kind of Internet it wants for its children and citizens : an open Internet that benefits all or a highly regulated one that inhibits innovation.
Programmes like Kanaja, an encyclopedic portal devoted to compiling all the cultural resources in Kannada, don’t just make the Internet more relevant to speaking the language. They make the Internet culturally richer for everyone. The most striking Indian Internet innovations won’t come from big institutions or companies moving online, however. They will come from Indians solving local problems. We know that India’s Internet infrastructure allows Indian engineers to solve the problems of small businesses in other countries. If India plays its cards right, we’ll soon see Indian engineers and Indian small businesses tackling Indian problems first, then exporting the solutions that work best.
We can see the early signs of that in Karnataka. There are hundreds of bus companies operating tens of thousands of buses across India. A lot of people look at this and see a mess. Redbus saw it as a data problem. They’re able to sell bus tickets in a way that would have been literally impossible 10 years ago, not because they couldn’t sell the tickets, but because they couldn’t have processed all that information efficiently enough. Fast Company declared Redbus one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. You don’t have to aim for foreign markets to be successful. You just have to solve local problems in a way that’s globally applicable.
Similarly, mDhil aims to improve healthcare information in India by putting toge-ther a health site that works on mobile phones as well as the Web. They reach 30,000 users a day. They have attracted 5.6 million viewers of their YouTube videos. No one told mDhil to do this. Each of those views represents an economic benefit: a trip saved; a health check self-administered; a reminder on how to administer a drug safely. They did it because something that wasn’t possible in Indiabefore suddenly became possible and they took the opportunity.
Even women’s difficulties finding the same kind of mentors and connections that men use to help rise up the corporate ladder can be seen as a data problem. What matters is that the women should be able to find each other more easily and make more connections. A programme called Women Entrepreneurs on the Web has allowed professional women to do just that, and they video-chat, swap tips and build their businesses in an environment that suits them.
All these examples prove India could reap a huge dividend from the Internet’s growth, the same one other countries have realised, or are about to. In all the places i’ve travelled to, i’ve yet to see a country whose situation worsened with the arrival of the Internet. Are all these connections an unalloyed good? Not necessarily. Is there still cause for optimism? Yes, I firmly believe there is. India accepts that investing in the Internet is as crucial as investing in roads or telephone lines. The bigger question is, which Internet will it invest in, an open or closed one?
If people in power are overly pessimistic about the Internet, their pessimism will be self-fulfilling. In seeking to control all of itm including the good parts that are working well, they’ll stop good Indians from doing great things. Instead, they should focus on giving every Indian the best shot at using the Internet to make his or her country even better.
(The writer is Executive Chairman, Google Inc.)