Information Age Colonialism

 By Gaurav Gupta
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Introduction

Information is power, and the one who has more information, will dominate the world post information era. Tech giants, fully knowing the potential of technology, are in the process of consolidation through mergers and acquisitions to ensure an edge over the user data. Microsoft acquired Yahoo and Skype to ensure the supremacy over user data. Facebook has made at least 81 acquisitions since 2005. Instagram, which, threatened Facebook popularity, was acquired in 2012 by Facebook.  Facebook copied snapchat features and ensured that it does not have any competitor. WhatsApp, which posed a challenge was acquired by Facebook in 2014. Similarly, Google has acquired many such tech companies like YouTube and colonised the online search space, bigger game plan being not just monetisation of data but also use the information to control the economy of any country.

War of Titans

In addition to mergers and acquisitions, these tech giants are also at war against each other for user data. In the recent war which is termed as ‘Clash of the Titans’, Apple and Facebook – two big tech giants are at faceoff about user’s privacy on how, the users will use their services. However, the real reason is control over user data. This battle which has been brewing beneath the surface for almost a decade, escalated on 28 Jan 2021, when Apple announced that it will upgrade software of its devices like iPhone and iPad by June 2021 to add new features that will inform its users about which app is gathering how much data on them.  For example, if an app is tracking contacts, location, financial transactions, purchases, borrowing history and search, Apple will break down the information for its users. It is a good news for users but not for Facebook and others. Now Facebook has to seek permission or even pay before the data is collected.

Background

In 2016, Indian Internet Service Providers blocked Facebook’s free internet mega plan to ‘Wire The World’ in India. As per Facebook, it was for the betterment of the society especially rural India, the real reason was to capture rural data, as 65.53% of India’s population lives in rural areas. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have weaponised the social media platforms in the recent past and now Facebook is fighting Apple in social media on internet. Facebook has built a webpage named ‘Apple’ on which there are testimonies from small business owners voicing concerns over the changes Apple is making in its software and how it is likely to affect their businesses.

Killing Innovation

India was a British colony from 1858 to 1947 and now in the year 2021, the world is steering at another colonial threat from big tech giants who are challenging our economy and are colonising the world which is not restricted to digital space. East India Company began trading in India in the year 1600 and killed local trader’s businesses. After establishing monopoly, the company went after policies and policy makers and got involved in politics with an aim to maintain its trading privilege. After Battle of Buxar, it controlled Bengal administration. Today big techs like Google, Amazon and Facebook, are following the same strategy, i.e. kill competition and innovation. Amazon, which launched its operations in India in 2013, began killing small time businesses by predatory pricing and preferred sellers. Tech giants are regularly acquiring startups to kill innovation and establish monopoly. They drain small players by poaching or hiring their talent forcing them to shut down. Amazon, in US, is lobbying against all its competitors and is bidding for billions of dollars of Government contracts. In 2019, Amazon spent 8.1 billion in lobbying. A Bloomberg report confirms that Amazon has increased its spending on lobbying by more than 460% since 2012. Amazon paid zero Federal tax in US on its profits in 2018, second year in a row. Google is now asking for a percentage of the revenue from the startups in India. Facebook, in Australia is dictating terms by bullying and blackmailing elected lawmakers. Company has blocked journalism and is controlling the reach of the press. It is likely to do the same in India and elsewhere.

In addition to monetisation of user data and weaponising the digital space, the US tech giants are also contributing towards PRISM3, code name for a US program under which the US National Security Agency(NSA) collects internet communications from various US companies. Its existence was leaked in the year 2014, six years after its establishment in the year 2008, by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who warned that the extent of mass data collection was far greater than the public knew and included what he characterised as “dangerous” and “criminal” activities. While big techs are working for US, China is consolidating user data through its apps ecosystem and undervalued IT hardware with a larger aim to expand its economy not just through fair trade practices but also through arm twisting. China continues to expand Digital Silk Road, an initiative on the side lines of Belt and Road Initiative for strengthening internet infrastructure, deepening space cooperation, developing common technology standards, and improving the efficiency of policing systems among 125 Belt and Road countries.

Weak Legal System

Facebook and all other tech giants have history of abusing legal gaps, dodging the regulators and dictate terms in India. When India announced its investigation against Amazon in Jan 2020, the company challenged the probe. There is no limitation under Indian law to the extent personal data can be tracked, collected and sold for profit within or outside the country. In spite of concerns, WhatsApp privacy policy continues to snoop on user data by businesses4. Personal Data Protection(PDP) bill, which will dictate how the user personal and sensitive data is to be stored, processed within the country and transferred outside India, was tabled in the parliament in the year 2019 and is still under discussion stage. In US, there is no well defined federal law to protect personal data6. Rather, a jumble of hundreds of laws has been enacted on both the federal and state levels which serve to protect the personal data of US citizens. General Data Protection Regulation harmonises the protection of personal data across the European Union since May 2018. (The Great (Fire)Wall of) China has blocked big tech giants like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter besides others to ensure that the user personal data of China is not exported outside without consent and misused for monetisation or for cyber warfare. In last one year, Government has banned more than 200 apps which were snooping on user’s data in India5.

Way Ahead

The result of such tech giants war will decide the future of not just technology but also how we use gadgets, apps and services. India must learn from its history and ensure that the country is not left vulnerable to digital colonisation by big techs, who are taking user data from India and sharing the information, which is processed data through business intelligence tools, to Indian companies at a cost. This is much similar to East India Company which exported raw material from India and supplied finished goods back to India. There can be no digital India without safe Indian Digital Space. India will have 926 million mobile users by 2023. This indicates the kind of individual data which will be available in public domain for monetisation. Privacy, a fundamental right in India, needs to be safeguarded at all cost, not just in physical space but also in the digital space. India by population is approx 1/7th of world population but is only 1/20th in terms of economy of the world. This gap can be bridged partially through data protection and making India a data driven economy by optimally monetising the user data, enacting laws and establishing regulatory authorities to protect the user data. Government must legislate and regulate tech giants and take immediate step towards protection of user data before tech giants start running government. India must also protect home companies and thus protect Indian interests offline.  If in the 17th century, India had spices and raw material, today India has world’s largest online market outside China. In 17th century, Portuguese and British companies were betting on India. Today it is the Silicon Valley giants. This time India must ensure that only India wins.

Endnotes:

  1. ‘War of Titans’ on Gravitas Live available on YouTube link at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FDFbn_pvlw
  2. India’s rural population https://tradingeconomics.com/india/rural-population-percent-of-total-population-wb-data.html#:~:text=Rural%20population%20(%25%20of%20total,compiled%20from%20officially%20recognized%20sources.
  3. https://www.theverge.com/2013/7/17/4517480/nsa-spying-prism-surveillance-cheat-sheet.

4. https://www.indiatvnews.com/technology/news-list-of-all-chinese-apps-banned-in-india-2020-667131

5. https://iclg.com/practice-areas/data-protection-laws-and-regulations/usa

6. https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789462652811