Can we ever rein in the Big Tech firms to foster indigenous innovation, stimulate balanced growth, and protect national sovereignty? Can we have a balanced set of rules and a clear framework to safeguard larger public interest? Can we check the weaponisation of the internet with balanced cybersecurity and secure data governance framework to make Google (Alphabet); Apple; Facebook (Meta); Amazon; and Microsoft, besides others, more responsible and resilient?
Look around, Big Tech runs most of the digital services that are integral and ubiquitous to our life. Our minds, economy, national security, democracy, and progress are invisibly controlled by a few technology firms. More powerful than governments, they wield immense power. For example, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), and Amazon platforms dominate global digital advertising with 74 percent mindshare and influence.
Such monopoly in search, advertising-intermediation, the duopoly of mobile OS (Apple and Google), and controls threaten sovereignty. The dominance of data and services by Big Tech leads to the concentration of excessive power, making economies heavily dependent, disrupting the financial systems, the economy, and geopolitics. Often, this also stifles fair business conduct, competition, data protection, and data-sharing.
An interesting case is Internet sanctions, intimidation, and emergence of splinternet by the Big Tech during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. For sure, globalisation is in retreat, as digital walls are erected around race, religion, nationality, or linguistic affinities, fragmenting the internet to control tech-mediated processes.
Big Tech runs most of the digital services that are integral and ubiquitous to our life. Our minds, economy, national security, democracy, and progress are invisibly controlled by a few technology firms.
The growing trust deficit is evident as the US-based Big Tech firms accuse Russia’s sovereign internet (Runet) to control people, elections, and society, whilst Russia blames the US for its aggressive, national, cybersecurity strategy—and seeks to stay immune. In response, Russia blocked access to Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter. Apple, Microsoft, and Netflix have also limited their presence in the country.
A case in point is Apple or Google duopoly which lock-in people in a self-contained ecosystem with market dominance. This is detrimental to consumers, competition, and innovation across sectors and devices. Internet gatekeepers must nurture open, fair, and collaborative digital markets and citizen-centric initiatives.
It is important to note that regulatory gaps must not allow lax governance of digital markets and allow personal data to be traded transnationally, hurting citizens’ rights and choices. Limiting the market power of Big Tech requires indigenous alternatives. Addressing systematic issues that mar digital platform services can help make our browsers, virtual assistants, and messaging or social media apps stay neutral and unbiased.
Data protection regulations
As one of the largest open internet markets, India is working on a comprehensive data privacy framework to boost the digital economy whilst keeping personal data secure. On 16 December, 2021, post two years of discussion on the Personal Data Protection Bill, the Joint Parliamentary Committee submitted its report. The upcoming rules are aimed at implementing stringent security safeguards. This is a welcome step, as India’s rules are weak, as compared to ‘gold standard’ data protection legislation like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). To ensure greater fairness in the allocation of value created by data, it is imperative to safeguard illegal access to Indian data by foreign governments. India must lay out the rights and obligations on the use of consumer and corporate data generated in smart gadgets, goods, and machinery. Users of smarter, connected devices must be able to access data generated by them, and share it with other companies, if they want.
We have a choice of enjoying the status quo, indulging in rhetoric, or embracing global best practices, to evolve a common, independent, apolitical, and neutral digital cyberinfrastructure, stronger algorithmic audit framework, and compliance standards. As artificial intelligence (AI) and deep analytics continue to replace human decision-making in our society, concerns are being raised about the openness, ethics, purpose, and accountability of machine learning algorithms, rules and regulations. To make automated decision-making unbiased and free from discriminatory outcomes, algorithms must become transparent.
Algorithmic transparency is a must to tame Big Tech platforms. The rankings they generate, such as news featured on top or products recommended must be explainable. Removing barriers to data sharing and developing cross-sector interoperability standards for data is vital.
As artificial intelligence (AI) and deep analytics continue to replace human decision-making in our society, concerns are being raised about the openness, ethics, purpose, and accountability of machine learning algorithms, rules and regulations.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has already become the dominant form of intelligence on Earth and is impacting the future of the human race. Winning the battle for the supremacy of the world in economic competitiveness and national security calls for AI supremacy. To become a dominant, self-reliant, global force in technology, India must act on a national vision to produce a team of National Champions in Technology and Innovation by 2025 who would lead us in AI. To become self-reliant, the government should fund and support these firms to advance sophisticated apps of AI. There is something to learn from China’s Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, iFlytek and WeChat; or from Russia’s Yandex (Russian Google), VK (Russian Facebook), or Runet (Russian Internet).
Benchmarking against the global best is the only way to excel. For example, the new European Union Digital Markets Act offers great insight for India to replicate. Without political consensus, it won’t be possible. As the platforms control access to the internet, be it through monopolies of search engines, duopolies of app stores, or devices, India must encourage indigenous technology innovations by start-ups, build resilient architecture, and open-APIs and a cybersecurity command centre.
We must act now to reimagine the jurisprudence of Cyberspace and quickly look into how laws can help India gain legitimacy in cyberspace and plug in the legal loopholes in this space. Relegating this to rhetoric will pose an existential national threat that will impact our ability to think. Opportunity beckons India to make its technology policy powerful, innovative, and secure to protect national sovereignty, fair competition, inclusive innovation diffusion, consumer rights, privacy, market efficiency, economic growth, and human progress.
(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in ORF Online. The original article can be found at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/how-can-india-make-its-technology-policy-powerful-innovative-and-secure/)