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Quit India, Company clones

Manoj Pande | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Chained bit by bit: Most of our internet activity is on foreign-owned platforms, so data generated in India is largely stored abroad   -  ISTOCK.COM

A call for a freedom movement against data mining by the modern-day avatars of the erstwhile East India Company

* Am I being stalked? What is the hidden cost? What part of me is being sold for what economic benefit? We have no clue where our data is going, who is using it, and to what purpose. Most internet activity is on foreign-owned platforms, so it is obvious that most data generated in India gets stored abroad.

“Who am I?”

This question has engaged ordinary humans as well as sages and scholars over the ages. Some believe that we are mere flesh and blood. For the spiritual, we are atma or soul. Someone looks at us as consumers, while to another we are labour. And, for yet another, we are investors. We are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters — we are someone indeed!

Yet there is something happening these days that I do not understand. Doubts have resurfaced afresh. Who am I?

***

With the transformation of the ‘bania’ (East India Company) into a ‘kshatriya’ (Company Bahadur) midway in the 1850s, India was well and truly subjugated. The British were, in a way, victors of the competition among the European powers (Britain, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Denmark) to monopolise trade with India.

The Portuguese were the first to come in 1498. The British East India Company, established in 1600, sent its ship Hector, commanded by William Hawkins, to Surat in 1608 to get trading concessions from Jahangir. The Dutch East India Company, established in 1602, set up its first factory at Masulipattanam in 1605 followed by others at Pulicat, Surat, Bheemalipatnam. The French were the last to come with the French East India Company, founded in 1664, setting up their first factory in Surat in 1668.

Aided by the powerful shipping fleets of these European nations, colonialism spread its tentacles everywhere. Slave trade was its worst manifestation. Indentured labour came second, being comparatively less exploitative. Economies of countries such as India were devastated as we were reduced to markets for finished goods and source of raw materials.

The death of colonialism saw the rise of another avatar — the multinational corporation, mainly American and European. As children we never realised that Bata or Coca-Cola or Colgate or Hindustan Lever or many others were ‘foreign’ companies.

It is even more complicated now. Not only have Japanese, Korean and Chinese corporations emerged, the world has also become hugely interconnected, thanks to the communication revolution. Trade and business are not merely about tangible goods anymore. Instead, we have structures that are not visible and outputs that we do not see. I am referring to the world of ‘data’. And that started this round of introspection: “Who am I?”

***

Big Brother is not just watching — where I go, what products I buy, my friends, my choice of music and what not — it has ensconced itself in my hand or my pocket. I am a source of data as well as its consumer. Google for something and watch the fun unfold. Once, early into the lockdown, I searched for some sandals. Three months on, I am still getting pop-up suggestions on various types of sandals. Had it not been a virtual world, I would have picked one sandal and thrown it at their face.

Facebook gives me ‘friend suggestions’ of people I have no clue about. I am sure that as ‘data’ my name and face would also be popping up elsewhere in someone else’s Facebook pages, irritating them. These, along with Amazon and Twitter, are among the most valued companies in the world. If they find a potential competitor, they gobble it up, like what Facebook did to WhatsApp. These are the East India Companies of this day and age.

Am I being stalked? What is the hidden cost? What part of me is being sold for what economic benefit? We have no clue where our data is going, who is using it, and to what purpose. Most internet activity is on foreign-owned platforms, so it is obvious that most data generated in India gets stored abroad. Supplying raw cotton to the mills of Manchester!

I, that is ‘data’, already stand colonised. With its large population, and China virtually out of bonds, India is an attractive market. It generates so much data. Crores of smartphones are at work all the time, in villages, towns and cities. Will collecting so much data not lead to data pollution one day? Will going through the website of Mercedes Benz or Ferrari make me its potential customer? Even though I have no money to even dream of owning one?

For the government, information on its citizens does matter for planning healthcare, education, affordable housing, and even direct benefit transfers. Aadhaar, we are told, is safe and does not cost anything. But this imaginary conversation between Aadhaar and top-end smartphones should set you thinking:

Aadhaar: “I have biometric information of people who possess me”

Smartphones: “So do we. What’s new? We are brands”

Aadhaar: “Brands?”

Smartphones: “Yes. Brands. People give us money by spending ₹40,000-50,000 and give for free all details such as location, GPS, contacts, biometric data, and everything that they post on Facebook.”

Thank god, someone realised this and banned many apps that were merrily chomping away at our data. Russia, China and the US do not have the bulk of their data in servers beyond their borders. I, too, will feel safer with a local server. After all, did we not buy all our stuff from the friendly local kirana shop in these Corona times?

So, let me be. My regular self with my follies, likes and dislikes. Do not ‘mine’ me. I am a human of flesh and blood, not ‘data’, and nor do I want to be treated as such. I cherish my independence and do not want yet another company taking it over. ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ it has to be. Bye Bye, East India Company clones.

Manoj Pande was a member staff of the Railway Board

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Published on September 25, 2020
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