When Facebook gains the data on a billion Indians, it will be able to hold the Indian government hostage too. It didn’t dare to pull this stunt in Europe because of the General Data Protection Regulations (AP)
When Facebook gains the data on a billion Indians, it will be able to hold the Indian government hostage too. It didn’t dare to pull this stunt in Europe because of the General Data Protection Regulations (AP)

At the mercy of big tech billionaires

India needs stringent data protection laws. It also needs to encourage its tech industry to develop competitive social media products
By Vivek Wadhwa
PUBLISHED ON JAN 13, 2021 07:46 PM IST

The United States (US) technology industry has shown us that it is more powerful than world leaders. Not only were social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook able to muzzle the US president, with the help of Amazon, they were able to shut down an emerging competitor.

I am not saying that this was not justified. President Donald Trump did incite violence and cause an insurrection — while the social media platform, Parler, fanned the flames of hatred and facilitated the planning of atrocities by white nationalists.

What is concerning is that the same companies now claiming to act in the interest of public safety were the ones that enabled the rise of Trump and divided America in the first place. The monopolistic powers of these companies enabled them to demand that we accept their terms and conditions or be locked out of online social discourse. They made themselves the judge and jury and refused to accept responsibility for the damage they caused.

Facebook has been at it for years, facilitating the spread of misinformation on a global scale, and denying responsibility for its actions. In 2018, it ignored the United Nations, which accused the company of having a “determining role” in stirring up hatred and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. Before this, it enabled data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire 50 million user profiles, thereby facilitating the spread of fear and misinformation by Trump and his 2016 election victory. Facebook data was also used to influence the Brexit vote in Britain, and, possibly, regional elections in India.

But the damage didn’t just stop at data. WhatsApp, in particular, has enabled the fermentation of hatred and civil unrest in almost all of the countries where it is popular because it lacks moderation and other critical checks and balances.

Social media companies have been reaping huge profits from the spread of disinformation. They perfected the art of manipulating the news we read so that we spend time on their platforms — and become more opinionated. They watch everything we do and keep track of who we interact with. Until the political winds shifted and the Democrats won control of all three branches of government, they refused to change their ways or take responsibility for what transpired on their platforms.

There are important lessons to be learned. Just as the Americans did, India is placing itself at the mercy of billionaires who don’t seem to care for anything but money. India should know better, though, because it wasn’t that long ago that it was subjugated by the East India Company, which started as a money-obsessed but benevolent trading group and became more powerful — and evil — than governments.

WhatsApp is now the dominant mobile communication platform in India. The government made a serious mistake when it allowed the platform’s parent company, Facebook, to add payment services — because this will enable it to also monopolise Indian commerce. Facebook will gain data on an unprecedented scale — and have the ability to create economic shocks greater than that of demonetisation. So far, there was a Chinese wall between WhatsApp and Facebook. Undeterred by commitments it had made to keep the data private, WhatsApp is now demanding that users accept its right to share extensive personal mobile data with Facebook. If users don’t comply with its demands by February 8, they will get kicked off its platform.

This is just the start. When Facebook expands its monopoly and gains the data on a billion Indians that it is seeking, it will be able to hold the government hostage too.

Note that Facebook didn’t dare to pull this stunt in Europe because the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations expressly prohibited social media companies from sharing such data. It feared the types of fines that the Europeans have been imposing on rogue tech companies.

India needs data protection laws that are at least as stringent as those in Europe. It also needs to encourage its tech industry to develop competitive social media products — and provide them the protections and support they need. That is what China did — it saw no advantages in letting foreign companies dominate its technology industry so it blocked Facebook, Google, Twitter and Netflix, and raised enough obstacles to force Uber out. Chinese technology protectionism created a fertile ground for local startups by eliminating the fear of foreign predators. This led to the creation of companies that are the most valuable and successful in the world — and adhere to Chinese culture and values.

Zoho founder Sridhar Vembu recently announced, over Twitter, that his company is creating an alternative to WhatsApp called Arattai (which means chat in Tamil). This could provide the alternative to WhatsApp that users fleeing to Telegram and Signal are desperately looking for. And it could become a platform for Indian mobile-app innovation.

India could also take a page from Trump’s book and demand that Facebook India be sold to one of its tech tycoons. Trump forced Tik Tok US to enter divesture negotiations with Oracle, Microsoft, and Walmart because he was worried about China gaining access to the personal data of more than 100 million Americans — and ability to influence public opinion and culture.

Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg decided that he did not like Narendra Modi’s farm laws or Shashi Tharoor’s tirades against the East India Company — and shut them off. This is what could lie ahead unless the country takes immediate action.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School. He is the author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation, and The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future

The views expressed are personal

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
US President Joe Biden swears in presidential appointees in a virtual ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, after his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, January 20, 2021 (REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden swears in presidential appointees in a virtual ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, after his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, January 20, 2021 (REUTERS)

How I erred on Biden and Blinken

UPDATED ON JAN 23, 2021 06:17 PM IST
For a man who makes a career out of talking, I missed out on two God-given opportunities because I felt I had nothing to say. I met Biden in July 2013 in Delhi, but didn’t take sufficient interest in him. in 2015, i interviewed Antony Blinken, but failed to stay in touch
Close
In India, many women in general and those with disabilities in particular have to face poverty, poor health conditions, little or no income, lower education levels and isolation. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
In India, many women in general and those with disabilities in particular have to face poverty, poor health conditions, little or no income, lower education levels and isolation. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

Focusing on women with disabilities

PUBLISHED ON JAN 23, 2021 06:06 PM IST
Government schemes, which have been a lifeline for so many women in these trying times, must be responsive to the needs of women with disabilities. For a start, the government could use its robust grassroots systems with its health workers to create awareness in families about the need to not compromise on health and education for women with disabilities.
Close
Heads of states of important countries stood by him and Netaji lit the fire of the freedom struggle beyond India’s shores.
Heads of states of important countries stood by him and Netaji lit the fire of the freedom struggle beyond India’s shores.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: Champion of freedom who inspired the world

By hindustantimes.com
PUBLISHED ON JAN 23, 2021 06:35 AM IST
Netaji was born in Cuttack in Odisha in 1897, graduated from Kolkata, and proved his mettle by becoming an Indian Civil Services (ICS) officer. But he was not accustomed to a life of comfort and amenities that came with his job. He was a warrior, who had to wage the freedom struggle.
Close
Part of the continuing fascination with Bose is the attraction of the rebel. His dramatic escape from house arrest in Calcutta in 1941 and arrival in Berlin is the stuff of myth.(HT Archives)
Part of the continuing fascination with Bose is the attraction of the rebel. His dramatic escape from house arrest in Calcutta in 1941 and arrival in Berlin is the stuff of myth.(HT Archives)

The patriot who will never die

By hindustantimes.com
UPDATED ON JAN 23, 2021 09:01 PM IST
As West Bengal heads to elections this year, Netaji’s legacy is once again up for grabs. The central government has announced that Netaji’s birth anniversary will be celebrated as Parakram Diwas.
Close
So many laws, still no solution. Perhaps because there’s a contradiction here. The contradiction in wanting to protect women but within the decorous folds of patriarchy (Hindustan Times)
So many laws, still no solution. Perhaps because there’s a contradiction here. The contradiction in wanting to protect women but within the decorous folds of patriarchy (Hindustan Times)

To protect women, challenge patriarchy

PUBLISHED ON JAN 22, 2021 10:42 PM IST
Seldom has the State’s concern to protect one half of its citizens been so high
Close
We journalists, so trapped by egos and the ratings wars, have brought this moment upon ourselves (shutterstock)
We journalists, so trapped by egos and the ratings wars, have brought this moment upon ourselves (shutterstock)

When invasion of privacy comes back full circle

PUBLISHED ON JAN 22, 2021 10:39 PM IST
The sanctimony that a section of the media wears like a second skin comes undone so fast when the scrutiny is on them.
Close
The mega-project, with an initial outlay of $ 46 billion, envisages CPEC as a hub with Gwadar’s port, energy, transport infrastructure and industrial cooperation as its four main spokes.(REUTERS)
The mega-project, with an initial outlay of $ 46 billion, envisages CPEC as a hub with Gwadar’s port, energy, transport infrastructure and industrial cooperation as its four main spokes.(REUTERS)

CPEC: China’s designs, Pakistan’s ambivalence, and India’s opposition

By Sujan Chinoy
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 08:35 PM IST
Economic motivation apart, China seeks to use the CPEC to consolidate its presence in a disputed region. If internal instability overwhelms Pakistan in the future, the CPEC affords China an opportunity to claim Hunza on the basis of specious historical records.
Close
Women farmers during the ongoing protest against the new farm laws, Ghazipur (Delhi-UP border), January 18, 2021 (Sakib Ali /Hindustan Times)
Women farmers during the ongoing protest against the new farm laws, Ghazipur (Delhi-UP border), January 18, 2021 (Sakib Ali /Hindustan Times)

The political economy driving farm protests

By Neelanjan Sircar
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 08:30 PM IST
The concentration of political and economic power has made democratic contestation challenging. Citizens are finding other methods
Close
Given the fragile nature of social protection for these working women, all provision of maternity protection should be universally applicable to all working women regardless of the consistency or duration of work and independent of their current status of employment. ((SHUTTERSTOCK))
Given the fragile nature of social protection for these working women, all provision of maternity protection should be universally applicable to all working women regardless of the consistency or duration of work and independent of their current status of employment. ((SHUTTERSTOCK))

The government must universalise maternity benefits

By Dipa Sinha, Jashodhara Dasgupta
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 08:33 PM IST
Maternity benefits should be a right of all workers regardless of employment status, or the number of children
Close
Actions will need to address affordability of phones and computers, female digital literacy and its social context and inadequate technical content dedicated to women and girls (HT File Photo)
Actions will need to address affordability of phones and computers, female digital literacy and its social context and inadequate technical content dedicated to women and girls (HT File Photo)

Enhancing women’s employment is key to economic recovery

By Sanjay Kathuria
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 06:19 AM IST
Recovery efforts cannot be gender-blind, because, as the saying goes, “gender-blind is not gender-neutral.” There are four areas where government policy can help ameliorate long-standing issues.
Close
Relatively speaking, the number of people reporting side effects is a fraction of the total immunised (REUTERS)
Relatively speaking, the number of people reporting side effects is a fraction of the total immunised (REUTERS)

Have faith in the vaccines | HT Editorial

UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 06:18 AM IST
India began its vaccination drive against Covid-19 on Saturday
Close
Two aspects of WhatsApp’s actions negate its claims — its ultimatum to users, including individual users, to allow sharing of data with Facebook or exit the app and that it is doing so in a discriminatory fashion (Shutterstock)
Two aspects of WhatsApp’s actions negate its claims — its ultimatum to users, including individual users, to allow sharing of data with Facebook or exit the app and that it is doing so in a discriminatory fashion (Shutterstock)

The government can, and must, stand for privacy

By NS Nappinai
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 06:19 AM IST
The clarion call for protection can provide succour not only against WhatsApp and its discriminatory data-sharing policy, but also against all digital platforms
Close
The decision to support Ghani shows that there are no endgames for India in Afghanistan. It would rather accept a setback in its pursuit of a balance between Kabul and Islamabad, instead of being seen as an opportunist (REUTERS)
The decision to support Ghani shows that there are no endgames for India in Afghanistan. It would rather accept a setback in its pursuit of a balance between Kabul and Islamabad, instead of being seen as an opportunist (REUTERS)

Decoding India’s move in Kabul

By Avinash Paliwal
UPDATED ON JAN 19, 2021 06:19 AM IST
Its decision to support the Afghan government, at a time when Ashraf Ghani is weak, is intriguing. But there is a historical backdrop to it
Close
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a New Year's address in Beijing.(AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a New Year's address in Beijing.(AP)

China is an economic winner, not an economic leader

Bloomberg
PUBLISHED ON JAN 18, 2021 10:46 AM IST
Even as Beijing posts impressive GDP figures, it’s a long way from setting the direction for global policy.
Close
It’s obvious now. The internet, once the promised land of free and open interactions for all, is now controlled by a few gigantic technology companies — often referred to as Big Tech. These companies include Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Paypal, and some others. (AP)
It’s obvious now. The internet, once the promised land of free and open interactions for all, is now controlled by a few gigantic technology companies — often referred to as Big Tech. These companies include Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Paypal, and some others. (AP)

India must lead in regulating Big Tech

By Jayant Sinha and Rajeev Chandrasekhar
UPDATED ON JAN 17, 2021 07:00 PM IST
Big Tech firms have played a transformative role. But they enjoy power without accountability. Rein them in
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP