Google opened an office today in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The move is part of the company’s larger effort to reach Southeast Asia, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing communities of internet users.
An office in the Philippines—Google’s fifth in the region—may be one of the better locations the company could have picked. For one, there’s still room for the country’s middle class to grow and good reason to believe it will. About 33 million Filipinos, or 29%, were online in 2011, a dramatic increase from 6% in 2006, according to Freedom House. As one of Asia’s major emerging economies, the country’s middle-class is growing at 9% a year and could make up 15% of the population by 2015.
There are risks for the search engine in emerging Asia, best illustrated by the company’s 2010 exit from China over alleged cyber attacks from Chinese hackers and heavy handed government censorship. But unlike the host countries of Google’s other Southeast Asia locations—Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, which all have some amount of media repression—information control is not as major a problem in the Philippines. Freedom House gives the country a grade of 23 on a 0-100 scale, with 0 being totally free and describes its press as “partly free.” While internet users have unrestricted access to domestic and international content, many outlets self-censor because of violence against journalists, and the country is currently considering a cybercrime law that critics say infringes on free speech.
The country’s president Beningno “Noynoy” Aquino won the country over by pledging to fight corruption and tax evasion, and as Quartz has reported, there’s reason to think the country may, indeed, be turning a corner. Aquino’s undersecretary read a note today from the president connecting Google’s arrival with the country’s push for transparency and a “culture of openness.” He said, “Your launch comes at time when our nation is on the rise, and setting up shop here is a vote of confidence.”