Last week, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) took a big step forward to democratise the digital space. It found big tech daddy, Google, to be guilty of abusing its dominant position in five relevant markets, for which it slapped a fine of ₹1,338 crore and issued a ‘cease and desist’ order. The markets in which Google has been found guilty of monopolistic practices are: operating systems (where Google’s Android prevails); app store market under Android OS; general web search services; non-OS specific mobile web browsers; online video hosting platforms.
Google’s modus operandi is to bundle these apps with the OS for free with the condition that similar others not be installed – and denying the user or device maker the option to uninstall these products. It has created these conditions through a network of restrictive agreements. Its business model is to maximise users in every market segment and drive advertisement revenues, besides revenue sharing from the app developers. Its fees are steep because it is a monopoly: Android OS accounts for about 96 per cent of the OS market, with Apple’s IOS making up most of the rest. As a result, Android users are forced to use Google Chrome, You Tube, Google Maps and Gmail which comes with the phone. Those impacted by the curbs in these markets are device makers who want to install Android variants and other apps; app developers who are blocked out by the Android OS because Google loads its Play Store with its own apps and other curated ones; and the end user who is deprived of a choice of products across markets. With total control over the browser and search engine space, Google armtwists media firms into parting with a hefty share of advertising revenues.
The CCI is not alone in calling out Google’s malpractices. The EU’s General Court recently upheld a fine of over €4 billion on Google, slapped by the EU four years ago, for identical practices. The CCI enjoins the giant to stop thrusting its apps and Android OS, and open up the field to other innovators. The trouble here is that in opening up the digital space and blunting the power of Big Tech, privacy and data security should not be compromised. As India rushes headlong into 5G and fintech grows exponentially, privacy and security concerns are paramount, as data moves rapidly between a number of apps. The issue of regulatory capacity becomes paramount here. A convergence regulator rather than domain-specific ones such as the Reserve Bank of India might be needed, as the market is opened up. Google’s fears regarding data security in case the floodgates are opened cannot be brushed aside. Alternatives to Android should meet encryption norms. However, Big Tech is not clear about user consent rules. Comparisons with EU are flawed as it has a robust data protection ecosystem. India’s data law has been in the works for a very long period. Meanwhile, a recent RBI paper details the regulation in place for Big Tech in major countries. Data protection should precede the push for competitiveness.
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