What new initiatives is Google involved in within the MENA region?
KESISOGLU: We’re involved in multiple initiatives in the region, a lot of which is centred around sharing what we know with the developer community as well as the public in general. I’ll give you a couple of examples of this. We run something that we call ‘g|days’ in different countries. We’ve run this event in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Morocco so far, and we’ll continue to do so in these countries again, and in new countries as well. The idea is simple. We fly in 40-50 engineers from around the world and we train thousands of developers so that they can take the latest trends and apply them to the region using the latest tools and products that either we have, or that are open-source in general. That’s one thing that we are doing. We’re also doing, again on the education theme, what we call a Google Media Academy. We hold an event and we instruct the media on how to use the internet and how to make use of all the latest tools, because there have been a lot of technological improvements to both consumer hardware and software. Even for us within the company it’s hard to keep up with everything sometimes, so we thought that we could be of help to people if we shared this information. Obviously on the business side, we also talk about our tools and products so that businesses can also benefit from the latest innovations.
According to a recent report launched by McKinsey & Company, the internet accounts for 21% of GDP growth in mature countries. What are your estimates for internet contribution to GDP growth in the region?
KESISOGLU: The internet’s impact on GDP growth has been pretty significant in larger countries for a couple of reasons. First, the internet has become really big in these countries. They have been investing in it for a while. If you take the global best-practices countries, such as the US, Sweden, South Korea and so forth, they have been investing in the internet for the last 10-15 years and they are now reaping the benefits of that. If you look at the region, I would say that the internet is still in its infancy, so now is the time for the governments to invest in it. I am seeing, through our operations in multiple countries, the results in terms of GDP growth to a certain extent, but not up to the levels in developed economies. Also, there is a math trick here. Developed economies are growing much slower than our part of the world, so the internet is making up for a higher percentage of the growth. They have been investing in this for a while so they are in the 10th or 15th year of their investment. I think in the near future we’re going to see an increased contribution of the internet to the economy, and we’re already starting to see the impact of it.
How sophisticated are the ICT sectors across the region and is there a large degree of disparity? How does this compare to the rest of the world?
KESISOGLU: Within the Middle East and North Africa, there are some countries that are above average, such as the UAE, from both an infrastructure point of view and a talent-importing point of view, and then there’s Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia from a local talent point of view, and also from a focus point of view. These four countries are clearly at an advantage. But, overall, I can see through our talks with governments a clear shift in the focus in this area simply because everyone knows that this is going to contribute to the economy and job creation in general.
One interesting thing is that I’ve seen a couple of governments moving pretty fast. In Jordan, for example, this is almost a national agenda. So when you talk to people in the government, you can clearly see that there’s a top-down initiative and they’re moving pretty fast. The same case is true for the UAE and some other countries in the region as they work to mirror other countries in the world that have already gone through these phases. Now, there’s also a part of this that happens organically. There’s only so much that the governments can do. They’re there to spark the start of it, but they won’t be able to take the internet industry and make it prosper just by themselves. At some point, the private sector comes into play. Besides MENA being a growth economy and a growth region, we also can be net contributors to the economies of the region. That’s why we’re excited about our operations here.
Where do you see the most opportunity for investment in ICT today?
KESISOGLU: When I look at the development of the internet in general, there are roughly three phases that all countries go through. The first one is the infrastructure. So this is when people come online and start to do things online. Second, as people come online, they are looking for content online. The third is when it’s a relatively sophisticated economy and they move to transacting online. I would say in MENA, we’re roughly in the second phase because internet penetration is at 25% in the region. It’s a decent number, but it still has a lot of growth ahead. The content part is a little more challenging. The data that I’ve been sharing publicly is that in our global index, we have Arabic representing 1.5% of Google’s index whereas the population of the MENA region represents 5% of the global population. So the right numbers are tough to guess, but there is a gap. Clearly we’re going to see this gap narrow at some point, and I see this as an investment opportunity because a large number of users are coming online. I think the number is between one to two million every month. That is a large number and they are looking for content. They are looking for content that they can understand and they can relate to. This is clearly an area of investment for multiple companies.
In what ways is Google+ different than Facebook?
KESISOGLU: Google + is our attempt to bring real live sharing to the online world. It’s a project that is a very young project and we are iterating on it. We have been moving pretty fast. Since its launch, we’ve made, on average, one improvement or new feature per day. So we are going pretty fast. A couple of things stand out when I look at Google + in terms of differences relative to the other players in the marketplace. First, we really want to give people the power to choose who they want to share with and what they want to share. We call this the Circles feature. You can group your friends in Circles and share with your friends what you want to share with your friends, and share with your mom what you want to share with your mom. We want to give control to the users who are going to decide whether we are successful or not. Another feature that I see gaining a lot of interest is the Hangout feature. Hangout is, basically, multi-person video conferencing in its simplest form. So far we have seen the President of the United States using it with citizens of the United States, and media celebrities here in the Middle East using it to connect with their fans. It has been gaining traction so I think that is also a big differentiating factor. The key thing here is that we continue to learn from the users. Most of these features came from feedback received from the people using the product and we will continue to iterate so we can meet their requests.
In our global index, we have Arabic representing 1.5% of Google’s index whereas the population of the MENA region represents 5% of the global population...Clearly we’re going to see this gap narrow at some point, and I see this as an investment opportunity because a large number of users are coming online.
How does Google balance free speech and freedom of information with internet censorship at the State level?
KESISOGLU: Censorship is a growing concern in the internet industry. In general, freedom of expression is a good thing and we as a company stand for that principle. It’s also an interesting concept – if you go around in the street and ask anyone, they’re probably going to say that freedom of expression is a good thing. But there are also limits. When you look at the practices, there are differences in execution based on different countries. Even people in the same country would act differently towards this. What we want to do as a company is to stand for the principal. On the other hand, especially in the grey cases, we do not want to be the decision maker because it is very difficult for one company to make these decisions. Our way of tackling this is on two fronts. One front is transparency. Obviously, we comply with local laws in the countries that we operate in. But when we have a request from a government we actually make this request public. It’s called the Google Transparency Report and it’s available to anyone using the internet. So far, in the Middle East and North Africa, we have had no requests, just as a note. The second important part of this is through the use of what we call community guidelines. Ultimately, Google does not want to be making these decisions and we have community guidelines so that the communities can decide whether something is good or bad, and we simply adhere to these community guidelines. As I said, this is not an easy topic, though as a company we stand for freedom of expression and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure this is known across the world.
What new and innovative products and services can we expect from Google in the future?
KESISOGLU: The trend in the world in new products is social, local, and mobile. Some people call it LOCOMO, which makes it a little funny. Now you can see a lot of innovation in this space simply because it is helping the lives of users. It is helping us. If you know that there’s a restaurant next to you through your mobile and you are hungry, that is a big validation. You can imagine hundreds of cases like that. We are certainly going to see a lot of innovation in that space. In this region, I would expect more of the short-term improvements on the content side. We are seeing a lot of increase in our YouTube usage and we expect to see a lot more content coming to YouTube. Similarly, we expect to see a lot more professional content come online in general. So this is probably what we are going to see in the short-term.