It has been a while that tech giants maxed out growth prospects in the so-called global north and started looking towards the south to rev up the growth and valuation engine. But the availability, accessibility and affordability of broadband internet has been a roadblock in unlocking billions of users in developing countries. That is why the two tech titans of the times have been doling out free Wi-Fi hotspots, offering basic Internet, and launching “lite” versions of apps so that they run smoothly on inferior devices and patchy internet. Good for business (selling ads and data), yes; good for development, maybe!
Due to the sheer size of its untapped market and its relative openness for foreign tech firms compared to China, India stands out as a darling of Western tech majors. Now the latest Google announcement to invest $10 billion on “India’s digital future” is intriguing. But what exactly is the ‘digitization fund’ all about? It is not clear whether Google will take on board any sponsors to feed the fund, nor is it specified which projects will be funded. The wish-list ticks the usual thematic areas of local-language content, affordable internet access, small business digitization, and digital solutions for health and education.
As the fund will last up to 7 years, clarity over funding and targets may emerge over time. Considering that Google’s CEO and a significant number of its HR trace their roots to India, its commitment has intrinsic value. But this development also has symbolic value, for India needed positive news amid the pandemic and China border tensions. With Google warming up, the Indian government can now showcase to other Western firms that India is open for business even as Chinese firms face the heat. The news is a big deal in India also because Google enjoys better reputation thanks to its productive platforms, unlike Facebook and Twitter that get caught in privacy debates and divisiveness.
Nevertheless, tech capitalism, sold often as a developmental panacea, isn’t always free. Case in point: Internet.org, which was Facebook’s free internet-access program launched in 2013 and later rolled out in dozens of developing countries including India and Pakistan. The program became controversial as Facebook allowed users access to only a handful of websites on the “free Internet”, thus breaching the spirit of “net neutrality”. Critics also charged that the “closed Internet” helped Facebook business in that millions of new Internet users came to associate the Internet with Facebook. Be careful what you wish for!
Naturally, folks at home are wondering why a major tech investment like this (even if adjusted for scale) does not fall in Pakistan’s lap. After all, the digital divide exists here as well due to supply-side issues (fiber optic connectivity, device ecosystem, localized content, etc.) and demand-side issues (digital literacy, affordability, cultural context, etc.). Besides, the potential market of next 100 million users is second only in the region to India’s 500 million users. Additionally, the pandemic has exposed the need for resilience in offline economy by deploying online tools in matters of commerce, governance, education, and health.
For its part, Google has made available for Pakistan “Grow with Google” – a platform containing a variety of free tools and training materials to help startups, businesses, developers, teachers, and others to grow in their respective pursuits. While that works on individual or business level, an institutional arrangement is perhaps required as well. Here, the government needs to engage the tech giants to establish research and innovation centers that focus on nurturing local talent, especially in the field of programming, creating localized content, so that fruits of tech can reach millions of users in local languages.
Tech investments need a different, light-tough kind of enabling environment than traditional factories. But there is a sense that Pakistan did not do itself a lot of favor when it promulgated the controversial and restrictive social media regulations earlier this year, leading to protests by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The government may also be in no mood to listen. After all, Chinese tech majors like Alibaba and Huawei have taken a keen and tangible interest in the Pakistani market, the investment timeline correlating with CPEC’s evolution over the years. There may be a whiff of geopolitics in tech matters.