Opinion

India must rein in digital monopolies

TV Mohandas Pai | Updated on September 22, 2020 Published on September 22, 2020

Dangerous trend All over the world regulators are concerned over this concentration of digital power   -  Francesca Coati

Facebook, Google and Twitter need to be regulated as they have the power to influence people’s choices and opinions

The biggest risk to humanity in these times is the rise of digital monopolies. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digitisation across the world and this digitalisation has strengthened the global monopolies even more. Global monopolies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter are platforms which a very large number of people use regularly.

For instance, there are reportedly 2.8 billion people using the Facebook platform, which is larger than India and China put together. All these platforms gather the data of every individual. If you use an Android phone, your movements can be tracked and this data can be used to create a psychometric profile of every individual.

The digital monopolies know where you went today, which books you read, what you shopped, which news you read, etc. By using AI and other tools, your mind can be manipulated. They can make you see what they want you to see and not necessarily what you want to see. Today, when you go to Google and ask for some data, it will optimise the search results in such a way which suits them. What you get to see is based on the money that advertisers pay for a certain result.

Digital monopolies have the power to have command over your mind. Another reason why these monopolies are the biggest danger is the fact that ‘juveniles’ run some of these platforms, which have never understood the responsibility of running such large platforms.

Declaration of ‘Digital Rights’

In 1946, the world accepted the need for basic rights for everybody and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into effect to protect human rights. Now the time has come for all countries to come together and create a universal declaration of “Digital Rights” to protect citizens from the onslaught of digital monopolies.

Legislatures all over the world seem to be in awe of these monopolies as these have grown in influence, generate significant revenues and profits and have huge amounts of cash on their balance sheet. In the recent Congress hearings in the US, many soft questions were asked and legislators seem to be in awe of these founders.

These monopolies are now censoring what individuals have to say and also shut people out. They have created their own groups to censor many people who express their opinions.

Own ideology

For example, today Facebook and Twitter have set up their own groups. These groups have their own ideology and seem to represent only the “Left ideology”.

On Facebook’s advisory board, there are many people with extreme Left ideology who shut out other’s views. By calling themselves as liberals, they are camouflaging their own views.

Today, there is no room for independent opinion in many US universities, and the same control narrative has come to Indian universities like JNU. For example, the Indian Army is projected as an occupation army, people like Chetan Bhagat and Baba Ramdev have been shut out. Students have a right to listen to them or not — the choice has to be there. The book on Delhi riots is another example to control free speech.

This behaviour has now been exhibited by Google by removing Paytm from Play Store. These stores have become primary places where young companies put their apps and Google is able to control what people can download. All over the world regulators are concerned over this concentration of digital power. The EU has taken up this issue and has penalised Google many times to make sure so that it does not become a threat to smaller companies.

In India, our political establishments also seem to be in awe of these digital monopolies. They call them Indian companies, invite them to India but seem to forget that all the data they have (of Indians) is stored outside India. We have given away our digital territory to outsiders.

Recently, the Indian government banned Chinese apps, which is a good thing as this data would have resided in China. China has put a wall around its data whereas India has been an open society, allowing everybody to come, forgetting that the views coming from outside are largely manipulated and can be used.

This is demonstrated amply by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to manipulate election data. Because of all this, democracy is under threat. So, is free thinking and free speech. Democracy is about availability of choices and freedom to make choices. Now, due to digital monopolies, this has been curbed. Today Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter are controlled by ideologically one-sided viewpoints that take shelter in one-sided contracts and have vague notions around ‘hate speech’.

Protect the public

The time has come for India and our political establishment to stand up and protect the public from the onslaught of digital monopolies. We need an urgent law for data privacy, digital residency and digital sovereignty so that all our data is stored in India and is available to the Indian government.

The leftist argument to this is that this would result in a surveillance state.

However, they forget that all this data is with a foreign power outside India who can do the same surveillance. We can only be protected if the data is in India, available to the government of India so that justice can be done where needed. We have to trust our government and our justice system.

Here, the RBI deserves kudos. Under former governor Urjit Patel, the RBI insisted, despite facing opposition from lobbies, that the payment data on all credit card transactions and like payments in India has to be stored in India. There was a hue and cry made over this, but the governor stood firm.

Today, all payment data is available, subject to regulatory oversight, RTI is applicable, and there is protection.

The recent instances are clearly a misuse of monopoly power. That is why India should also have its own app store and we should have regulations which will force digital monopolies like Google to first issue a notice, have a cure period and then only act.

These platforms have now become public utilities, part of our Right of Free Expression, and need to be regulated by authority.

The writer is Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners

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Published on September 22, 2020
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