India must focus on digital infrastructure, data protection laws
The same technologies that have done a lot of good, however, also imperil India’s freedoms. They have widened the global equity gap, created echo chambers of disinformation and empowered a small group of foreign companies.Updated: Aug 15, 2020 15:49 IST
India’s public access to the internet commenced 25 years ago, when Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited announced its services. It has literally transformed the country, allowing everyone to communicate, gain knowledge, transact commerce, summon a taxi, order food, and stream Bollywood songs. Imagine how much more painful the Covid-19 pandemic would have been without the internet.
The same technologies that have done a lot of good, however, also imperil India’s freedoms. They have widened the global equity gap, created echo chambers of disinformation and empowered a small group of foreign companies. It is isn’t one East India Company that is looking to colonize India, but several. And they come from both the East and the West.
The reality now is that technology is taking over every part of our lives; every part of society; every waking moment of every day. Once, technology could be put in a box, a discrete business dominated by business systems and some cool gadgets. Thanks to the internet, it has slowly but surely crept into more corners of our lives. In everything from biology to energy to media to politics to food to transportation, unprecedented change is redefining our future.
What are we heading for? From the East, you see an aggressive Chinese government, shedding its sheep’s clothing, styling itself as a Wolf Warrior. It has become so deeply entrenched in industries such as technology, communications, social media, medicine, and high-value manufacturing that it could literally control the world. It has been perfecting the capabilities of spying on every person on the planet by spying on its own people, and seeks to influence global public opinion through social media and monopolize almost every supply chain by controlling digital infrastructure.
Now look to the West, where US policy makers from both sides of politics have been grilling the CEOs of some of the largest technology companies, trying to have them take responsibility for the global carnage their products have caused. Yet both the ruling and opposition parties are helpless in controlling these companies’ influence and power. The hearings served to document the abuses they had committed, but not to correct them.
Then there are widening income inequality and a growing technological divide. As the present pandemic decimates global economies, hundreds of millions of people lose their jobs, and hundred of thousands succumb to coronavirus disease, the market valuations of these companies are reaching all-time highs, their owners becoming wealthier by the day. In the US and Europe, more and more people, paying the price but largely excluded from the benefits of technological progress, are protesting however they can. And technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias.
As I had discussed in The Driver in the Driverless Car, a book that warned about the dark sides of technologies, the situation will get only worse — unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating and chart higher standards for its use. For India, the future could also hold a modern form of colonialism, with foreign companies dominating its industries and taking all the spoils.
The problem is that the same technologies that bring us together also monitor everything we do.
Through our smartphones and their applications, Apple, Google, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Facebook track our movements and habits. They know who we speak to. They know what we say. They read our texts and e-mails. And our web searches and the videos we watch tell them our thoughts and preferences. When we post our photos on social media, they store them, recognise our faces and our friends’, and use them to learn who we know and where we were and are.
These companies use all these data to sell ads to us. That is how they make their billions. The problem, as we saw with the US Congressional hearings on Big Tech, is that they lack scruples and the guidance of the most basic ethics. They will allow a person or a government to serve misinformation and propaganda to anyone who fits specified criteria. And this gives them more power than governments have.
Chinese companies carry the greater risks of the Communist Party’s ambition of making the rest of the world subservient to China as it has succeeded in doing to neighbouring states and even imposing force as it has done in Hong Kong. That ambition rests on technological reach. Phone applications such as TikTok and the software on Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo, and other Chinese phones are probably not doing much damage just yet; but they have that potential. Almost any technology that connects to the internet can get a software update that turns it into spyware and worse. China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires every company and citizen to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work”. So the Chinese government can induct these companies whenever it wishes to.
Mastery over our lives is not the role that we envisaged for these technologies. And it’s not the future that India wants to build for itself.
That is why India’s prime focus for Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) should be the technologies it chooses to base its digital infrastructure on. India needn’t build the semiconductors or mine the rare minerals for electronic components; rather, it can focus on the layers of technology built on top of these, both the assembled hardware and apps.
India also needs laws that are more stringent than Europe’s Data Protection Regulation. Yes, it needs to prevent the export of data; more fundamentally, it must ensure that all Indian residents’ data remain their own, for use only with their explicit permission. This will entail dramatically strengthening India’s privacy laws, to limit any company’s ability to spy on its users.
India doesn’t have to lose this battle to the modern-day East India companies from the East or West. It has the talent to build its own infrastructure and to leap ahead. Its millions of engineers, trained to develop IT systems for the West, give it a huge advantage. It could be creating world-changing technology companies that challenge Silicon Valley as well as China. Let it do so.
Vivek Wadhwa is distinguished fellow, Labour and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School, US, and co-author of the forthcoming book, From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation.