At 48, Sundar Pichai is amongst the world’s youngest technology titans and also one of the highest paid. The India-born CEO of Alphabet Inc (with a market cap of $1.5 trillion) is now setting his sights on expanding Google’s footprint in the world’s fifth largest economy. In an exclusive interview with ET’s Surabhi Agarwal & Raghu Krishnan, Pichai laid out his vision for Google’s digital ambitions in the country of his birth. Excerpts:
Will this $10-billion fund make lots of venture-type investments in small companies or will it be used to buy large stakes in big companies?
I don’t want to comment on any specific companies. We are definitely going to look at both, a combination of venture capital — we have been doing it through Google Ventures in India and scaling them that way — but definitely, given the size of the digitisation fund, there is opportunity to directly invest in bigger companies as well. Both are in the mix, as also infrastructure investments (such as) data centres. We expect a large portion of this (fund) to go into actually investing in Indian companies.
What is your view on the proposal to get companies like Google and Amazon to share anonymous data with the government?
I definitely see the opportunity to use technology to drive social good, in health, there are elements everywhere. We’ve done it in education, our recent work in flood forecasting in India, is (also) a good example. We are definitely happy to partner with governments in compliance with laws, in a democratic society you have the right framework.
I think privacy regulation is incredibly important. Given the pace of digital transformation, I think, and I know he (PM Modi) has made strides with privacy legislation. And so, with the privacy framework creating the right construct for public private partnerships, I think it’s a good thing. But, you have to do it respecting user’s privacy and that’s the foundation on which we can explore.
The Digital Services Tax also emerged as an issue between the Indian and the US government…
In terms of tax, one of our goals is that we want to invest in India and over time scale up our operations. Today, the global tax structure reflects that and so part of the reason for our R&D investments in India and investing in other companies is to do that more directly.
The current global tax structure is an allocation issue. At Google, over the last 10 years, I think we pay an average of over just north of 20% in taxes. My sense is that these are best handled through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) processes.
That’s the framework we would encourage, which is a good way for countries to align. But, we respect the sovereignty of the countries involved. As a company, the best way we can help is by investing in the country directly, that’s the best way to address the problem in the long run.
You were disappointed with President Trump’s move to suspend H-1B visas, will this hurt the US?
The free flow of ideas and people have definitely benefited the US. In the long run, it helps connect countries, talent flows both ways and economies (gain). It’s definitely been a net positive for the US, increasingly, as we deal with complex issues like AI or biomass and important issues like that, we need to work together globally to achieve these things.
There’s a push to build a local app ecosystem, as part of Aatmanirbhar Bharat. How do you view this movement ?
India has local talent, access to a large market, strong entrepreneurial and venture capital foundation to see this through. As a company, we are committed to it. We are trying to develop apps in India. We want to invest in companies that are doing that. We are excited by that vision and want to help play a small role in accelerating that trend.
Google has announced a licensing program for publishers in Germany, Australia, Brazil, any plans to expand it to more outlets in other countries, including India?
We are in the early days in this programme and we’re deeply committed to journalism, the role (it plays), particularly in democratic societies. Through our products we are very focused on driving traffic to publishers and we have incorporated news as part of our experiences to reflect its importance.
Be it search, you’ve seen top news now in YouTube, so we are definitely driving traffic. Through ad technologies, we support both publishers and share a significant part of the revenue back with the publishers. We are exploring additional options, and that’s what we announced in a few countries.
We will look to get feedback and over time our goal will be to address more countries as we scale up the programme. This is a sector where we want to do more. We set up Google News initiative and we’ve committed over $300 million globally.
Google would have done a fair amount of modelling on the pandemic… are there insights?
I want to be conscious of the fact that we are not epidemiologists, we are supporting through cloud tools for researchers, providing AI where we can. It’s clear that there’s been progress in terms of the protocols for treatment. We know masks, social distancing, washing hands, ability to test more and isolate are all effective.
India took a clear decisive decision with the lockdown. And that’s been helpful. We have to rely on all these tools, and, there is an unprecedented effort to develop vaccines. It will play out over the next 12-18 months.
Now there are the recent events in Hong Kong… Does this make India a more attractive investment option?
I’ve always felt India is a unique opportunity. The foundation of the country, the strong interest in technology, which I feel every time I come there. From the Prime Minister’s office, having laid out a vision for Digital India, all these are unique factors as also the size of the market.
Covid itself accelerates some of the long-term trends, be it ecommerce or speed delivery, or how we are doing this meeting and getting work done. It’s part of the reason why we are doing the fund at this time. I’m really excited by it.
Will TikTok’s loss be Google’s gain?
We take a long-term view, we definitely don’t see it that way.
We also run a platform and when we run platforms like Android, we want to support all developers. We obviously do comply with local laws and in the countries we operate in. That’s how we think about it.