Taking on Tech Giants

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The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code notified by the Centre is a step in the right direction. Big Tech companies should not be allowed to take consumers for a ride and wreak havoc on our social and political structures. The Government should put in place policies to spur competition and provide level-playing field for indigenous players. Through incentivising innovation and enabling entrepreneurs to propel their ideas into sustainable businesses, India can achieve Aatmanirbharta in IT
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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg
In an audacious move, the Australian Government has asked Big Tech companies, mainly Google and Facebook, to pay media houses for the news they publish on their platforms. To regulate big tech companies and to ensure fair play and competition, the Scott Morrison government has given shape to the News Media Bargaining Code Bill, which is expected to become a law in three months. The tech companies will have to enter into an agreement with publishers individually or collectively within three months; else the government will take a call on the quantum of compensation, which the companies will have to comply with if they have to operate in Australia.
Although the US tech behemoths tried to play hardball initially, later they meekly submitted to the government’s diktat. What forced Google to change its stance was Microsoft’s promise that it was ready to provide the search engine ‘Australians want and need’. As Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, puts it: “…within 24 hours, Google was on the phone with the PM (Scott Morrison), saying they didn’t want to leave the country after all.” Facebook, which suspended publishing of news pages, restored them after two weeks and struck deals with media houses for settling compensation packages.
To build an alliance of democracies against tech giants, PM Morrison has spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other world leaders. After PM Morrison’s interaction with his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, Canada agreed to coordinate with Australia in efforts “to address online harm and ensure the revenues of web giants are shared more fairly with creators and media”.
Amid bourgeoning concerns about lack of transparency, accountability and misuse of rights of consumers, the Indian Government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 under section 87 (2) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 to regulate technological platforms. The Ministries of Electronics and Information Technology and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting undertook elaborate consultations among themselves in order to have a harmonious, soft-touch oversight mechanism in relation to social media platforms as well as digital media and OTT platforms, etc.
The new rules make it mandatory for companies to assist in investigation in cyber security-related cases. India has seen how OTT platforms were used by vested interests to malign Hindu belief systems and hurt religious sentiments. The Media Ethics Code states: “A publisher shall take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group.”
European Experience
The European Union has already declared a war on tech giants – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple -- and has put the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place to regulate their operations, in 2018. In 2019, France introduced a tech tax to rein in these companies. At the core of EU’s strategy is: Protecting individual privacy and providing a level-playing field for all tech players by boosting competition.
Although France and other European Governments are trying to create enabling atmosphere for the competition to flourish in their respective countries, the tech space is hugely skewed in favour of the US. For instance, Qwant, France’s answer to Google, has less than one per cent share in the domestic market. Of the 20 most valuable tech firms, 15 are based in the US. While Europe has one, India has none. Cocking a snook at US giants, China has not only created its own tech clones but built an impenetrable Great Wall around its tech space.
Damage potential of tech giants is huge: The main complaints against them are – armed with near-monopoly over data they indulge in destabilising democracies by widening faultlines already prevalent in the societies and invade privacy of consumers 
Damage potential of tech giants is huge: The main complaints against them are—armed with near-monopoly over data they indulge in destabilising democracies by widening faultlines already prevalent in societies and invade privacy of consumers. India got a hint of the nuisance value of data manipulation during the build-up for the 2019 general election when the Cambridge Analytica controversy erupted and in the recent farmers’ protests. The Indian government had to put its foot down for removing accounts of some the mischief mongers who were peddling in fake news and indulging in anti-India propaganda through Twitter.
Data Colonisation and India
Data is the new fossil fuel for the world: it is the most valuable resource. In this context, the crucial question is – how should the profits be distributed? With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, the demand for data has increased sky-high. In the emerging world order, whoever controls the data will rule the world—irrespective of whether they are State actors or non-State actors. In today’s multi-polar world, with huge resources at their command, tech giants are becoming a new powerful pole.
For long, India had allowed tech behemoths to have unrestrained access to its market and stamp out all indigenous competition through acquisitions and other methods. Lack of policy support and enabling atmosphere for domestic industry to flourish has made the task easier for the US giants. Given its huge advantages, we cannot allow our country to be reduced to an entrepreneurial wasteland. The pandemic has exposed us to a new set of challenges.
To become a $5 trillion economy and achieve Aatmanirbharta, India has to put together strategies and policy framework to spur competition and curtail the maleficent influence of tech giants on the domestic tech industry. India cannot build a self-reliant economy on the borrowed crutches of alien Big Tech firms. For this, India should have control over the data of its citizens and a lion’s share of the revenue raised from Indian data troves by alien tech firms.
It is heartening to note that an earnest effort is going on to develop alternatives for social media giants, especially after standoff with China. Apps such as Koo, Mitron, Roposo, MS Takatak and Sandesh have received huge response from domestic consumers. The government should provide conducive atmosphere for Indian tech companies to flourish and give a good competition to their global counterparts. Unlike Europe, which is stuck in the past, India has many advantages, including a young and vast talent pool and a vibrant democratic system. By putting in place an enabling policy framework, India should take the lead in the unfolding IT Revolution. India cannot afford to miss the bus, as we did in the case of Industrial Revolution. As they say, to escape an avalanche, one has to swim up and fast. Incentivising innovation is very important for India’s growth. Enabling entrepreneurs to propel ideas into sustainable businesses will only help India in achieving Aatmanirbharta.