At the mercy of big tech billionaires
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