With India the latest to question its practices, Google says it's already provided answers

Search giant says that regulators in the US, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere have already dismissed similar charges.

It's lonely at the top. Search giant Google is a truly massive company. It employs more than 53,000 people, has a market capitalisation of more than $420 billion and could easily swallow up a couple of small countries, going by GDP alone. It's also utterly dominant: More than two-thirds of all searches on the internet worldwide go through Google, with the tech firm actually having more than 90% market share in many countries.

That means it's very successful. But it also means its influence is massive. Google to a large extent controls what we think of the world, even as it insists that it "won't be evil" while doing so. Google is so big that most people think of it as the internet itself. And it's so influential that some believe it is helping decide the results of elections.

While it's political inclinations might be the stuff of conspiracy theories, allegations of abusing its dominant position in the market are all too real. The Competition Commission of India's director-general last week filed a report accusing Google of ensuring sites that pertain to its own products, like Google Finance and Google Hotel Finder, turn up first on its search engine.

Abuse of dominant position

These charges levelled by the Competition Commission have been corroborated by 30 other companies including Flipkart and MakeMyTrip, which have also alleged that the sponsored links thrown after a Google search are mostly related to the amount of money a company is spending on advertising with Google. What this means is that a search for a company could show up its competitor’s result at the top as the sponsored result if it has been paying a lot of money for advertising.

If proven guilty, the company might be fined with up to 10% of its total income which was $14 billion in 2014, according to the Economic Times. The director-general of the commission, hence, reportedly concluded that Google’s practices are counter-productive to innovation as it gets expensive for the listed websites to keep advertising in order to be seen in the search results.

The company, however, believes that it is in full compliance of the Indian law.

“We’re currently reviewing this report from the CCI’s ongoing investigation," a Google spokesperson said. "We continue to work closely with the CCI and remain confident that we comply fully with India’s competition laws. Regulators and courts around the world, including in the U.S., Germany, Taiwan, Egypt and Brazil, have looked into and found no concerns on many of the issues raised in this report.”

Google has already faced similar charges in the US and Europe.

After a five-year investigation, Google has been charged with rigging search results for shoppers by the European Union, which alleges that the company is moving its own product listings at the top and undermining other websites. If it indeed turns out that Google used its dominance in the market, the EU regulator could fine it up to 6.2 billion euros like it did with Intel in 2009 for 1.09 billion euros.

Accusations and settlements

In 2013, when the US Federal Trade Commission chose not to continue prosecuting Google over antitrust concerns after the company offered to voluntarily make changes to the way its search engine works and that proved enough to keep it out of trouble.

Others have also come out arguing that Google search results doles out “inferior content” to consumers, with this study by listings company Yelp claiming the search engine was abusing its position.

“By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content,” the paper noted. “We find that users are 45% more likely to engage with universal search results (i.e. prominently displayed map results on Google) when the results are organically determined. This suggests that by leveraging dominance in search to promote its internal content, Google is reducing social welfare, ­ leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches.”

In India, the company has already been fined Rs 1 crore last year for failing to comply with the information requests by the Competition Commission.

Google has claimed that its search results are similar to that of Facebook and Twitter. But not everyone was sold on the argument.

According to the Economic Times, the director-general of the Competition Commission said that the argument was invalid since those are social networks and not search engines. Facebook too, in its submission to the Competition Commission, claimed that the nature of Google’s searches which often span across the web is quite different from searching within a social network.

Algorithmic defence

In 2012, amidst an antitrust investigation by the EU and calls for a similar probe in the US to make the company reveal how its search algorithms work, Google jumped to defend itself and claimed that its algorithms are able to keep sponsored and organic search results separate.

Senior Vice President of Engineering Amit Singhal said that it wasn’t manipulating its algorithms for websites but to provide users with a better experience. “Our algorithms are always designed to give users the most relevant results,” he wrote. “Sometimes the best result isn’t a website, but a map, a weather forecast, a fact, a quick answer, or specialized image, shopping, flight, or movie results.”

Even though the company was far from admitting its culpability, it said that all other search engines such as Yahoo and Bing do the same thing.

What riled many, however, was the nonchalance with which Singhal, in the same blogpost claimed that the users are free to switch to other search websites as they deem fit and even provided links to other search engines.

“And if users don’t like our results, they can try Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or even Google Minus Google,” the blog stated.

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Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

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Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.


SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.