Exactly three years ago, in February 2016, India decisively dodged a bullet. Fighting back against an aggressive campaign of misinformation, lobbying and advertising from global internet giants like Facebook, India became one of the first major countries to adopt unambiguous rules to ensure Net Neutrality.

The rules brought in by the telecom regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), mandated that internet access providers (from wired broadband to mobile networks) couldn’t discriminate between different applications or services accessed over the internet by their customers.

While the US did adopt Net Neutrality ahead of India in March 2015, the rules were subsequently repealed under the Trump administration.

The common objective behind Net Neutrality efforts around the world was the realisation that the internet is the foundation of the modern digital economy. And that access to it needs to be free and fair for all businesses, without which, innovation will suffer.

Fast-forward to 2019 and mobile apps are the new internet. With a reported valuation of $75 billion, China’s Bytedance, an internet tech company, is the world’s most valuable startup, toppling ride-hailing app Uber. It owns a slew of mobile-first services like Jinri Toutiao (a Chinese language news aggregation app), Helo (another news and content sharing app) and TikTok, a short video app with over 500 million users.

Facebook’s saviour, should it find the global tide of negativity against it insurmountable, is the chat app WhatsApp. It has more than 1.5 billion global users, with over 200 million in India alone.

Indians, incidentally, are the world’s largest app downloaders, according to App Annie, an app analytics firm. And of the top 100 apps in the country, over 50% are Chinese.

So if you’re building a new consumer service, you’d better have an app.

Back in 2015, Facebook tried to make its zero-rated service, Free Basics, the gateway to the internet for Indians. And failed. So imagine its consternation when it finds that its arch-rival Google has ended up becoming the gateway that controls 98% of app usage among Indians, sans any controversy or discussion.

Of the 300 million Indians who access the internet on their smartphones, 98% use Google’s operating system Android, according to Counterpoint Research. It’s a market share figure hard to come about even in the most obscure or niche of sectors, and Google enjoys that in a large and diverse market the size of India.

Beyond Android, Google is also backed by a category-defining suite of apps—from YouTube to Gmail to Google Maps to the cashback-friendly Google Pay which directly competes with Paytm*, PhonePe and Amazon Pay.

Google, essentially, forms a triumvirate with its apps and Android connecting via the app distribution platform Play Store. This makes it inordinately (and invisibly) harder for anyone else to compete with Google, as each part feeds off the other and the sum continues to grow disproportionately.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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