Before looking at big tech, govt must cast off its ideological lens, writes Harini Calamur
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The big tech giants have gotten so big that they have begun to pose a challenge to many democratically elected governments, threatening to upend entire societies and systems in their insatiable hunger for our data. In addition to having monopolistic control on our data, they have also been involved in packaging and selling the very same data to those who would upend entire democratic systems. Over and above this, there are also calls to investigate the monopoly power of these giants in the markets in which they operate, as well as their predatory practices of buying up and shutting down potential competition.


How big is this threat? Alphabet owns Google, Android, and a host of services that most cannot do without – mail, maps, drive, search. Amazon owns much of the world’s cloud infrastructure and is the largest retailer, and one of the largest providers of streaming services. Facebook with Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp owns much of our social conversations and interactions. And Microsoft owns most of our professional space with its operating system, enterprise solutions, office software, LinkedIn, and GitHub. In essence, all of them own large chunks of us with little or no control.


Breaking up monopolies

In the United States of America, much of the government action is around the issue of monopoly and the breach of antitrust laws. Both Alphabet and Facebook are in the crosshairs of regulators, as they look to see how the power of these platforms can be curbed. Forty-eight attorney generals from various American states, and the Federal Trade Commission have all filed separate actions against Facebook. The recent subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights identified three major areas in which they want to see some improvement.


The first is the right of users – you and I – to take our data and go to other platforms, if we so choose – the right to data interoperability and portability. The second is non-discrimination – large giants like Amazon and Google cannot discriminate against products and services that are not their own. And the third is looking at the entire thing from the point of view of whether the monopolies need to be broken up, as well as looking at curbs on what they acquire. About 40 years ago, there was a similar ruling which broke up the telecom giant – AT&T – into smaller companies. It is not like this is without precedent.


'Right to be forgotten'

In the European Union, there are talks about strict rules preventing monopoly and anti-competitive behaviour. Already, the EU’s right to be forgotten, under the GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation - gives back some measure of control of data to users who ask for it. GDPR rules are amongst the strongest defence of individual privacy and was roundly opposed by the tech giants when it was being passed. But now the focus is more on ensuring that companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google do not increase their monopoly power in European Union. Germany has just come up with a law that does not look at abuse of monopoly power after it has taken place, but instead, looks at how you can ever prevent such a situation from arising.


In Australia, the method of reining in big tech has been to get them to pay new platforms for linking to them. Both Facebook and Google, the two most impacted platforms, lobbied against this. Facebook went so far as to ban news links out of Australia – but the will of the government has prevailed.


In India, the debate is still nascent. Right now, it is being framed far more from the perspective of the content carried on the platforms, rather than on the monopoly powers exerted by the platform. In India, WhatsApp seems to be the most common mode of communication with almost 530 million users – about 50 per cent of all mobile users. Facebook has over 400 million users, and Instagram, around 210 million users. Amazon is a major force in the retail business, not just as a platform that enables connections and deliveries, but also as a series of brands that competes for our wallet share. And Google is slowly establishing itself as being indispensable in all areas of our life, including payments.


Here, controlling narrative

While there is some action, right now, the Indian government wants to ensure that it controls the narrative on these platforms. And much of the recent regulations on social networking sites and on OTT platforms, seem to be around the ‘appropriateness’ of content and the right of the government to demand ‘inappropriate content be taken down immediately'. And while one understands the insecurity of the ruling party in wanting to suppress criticism – which it believes to be unfair and politically motivated – the bigger challenge is to see how these platforms, by their very control on our data, are allowing for ‘inappropriate’ content to be the glue that binds.


The government of India needs to look at this issue of big tech and market distortion without the ideological lens of wanting to only control content. Right now, given the way the tech giants are behaving the world over, it is likely they may give into the content demand, to deflect attention from the more sticky problem of using their power to distort the market. And this market distortion is what the government needs to regulate for. If they do this, the rest will automatically fall in place.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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