Is Google playing fair in Africa?

Just been at a really interesting event at Chatham House in London called Technology: A Platform for Development. (ZDNet.co.uk is one of the media partners). The conference had lots of very interesting speakers from NGOs and development agencies as well as lots of vendors who are keen to show their philanthropic sides whilst also getting very excited about how much dosh they can make out of growing markers such as Africa and India.
During the obligatory coffee break, I got chatting to someone (journalist ethics and Chatham House rules prevent me from saying who) who does a lot of tech-related work in Africa. He brought up the subject of Google and how from his perspective, it’s “Don’t be Evil” motto is not quite standing up in Africa at least (just as it was put under considerable strain over censoring in China).

My coffee-partner claimed that the line between the philanthropic side of Google, managed by the marvelously named Dr Larry Brilliant, and the commercial Google, appear to be blurring in Africa. And it goes beyond the normal branding exercise that a lot of tech companies go in for when it comes to doing good deeds, but actually seems to involve Google using its philanthropic work as a shoe-in to organisations who might be future clients of Google Inc – even down to data/leads changing hands betweem the two.

Now I can’t stand any of this up you understand, so it might be complete rubbish, but this guy was one of the speakers at the event and someone who should know what he is talking about. Even if there is any truth in it, then I am not sure how hard we can be on Google as other companies are certainly guilty of using philanthropy as a loss leader.

Take Microsoft’s international student discount iniatives which creates long term demand for their apps, or the companies Digital Pipeline iniative to help send refurbished PCs to the developing world – which mostly (it would have been exclusively but MS couldn’t argue the charity commission around) have Windows and Office preloaded.

The truth is that just as green IT goes hand in hand with cost savings, philanthropy for most tech companies has to have some profit generation effect to – even if its just a marketing one. As I said, it might not be true, but I thought better of Google but maybe that’s my problem.

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