Earlier than taking a look at massive tech, govt should forged off its ideological lens, writes Harini Calamur
The big technology giants have grown so big that they have begun to challenge many democratically elected governments and threaten to strain entire societies and systems in their insatiable hunger for our data. Not only did they have monopoly control over our data, but they were also involved in packaging the same data and selling it to those who would turn entire democratic systems upside down. It also calls for an investigation into the monopoly power of these giants in the markets in which they operate, as well as their predatory practices of buying up and closing potential competition.
How big is this threat? Alphabet owns Google, Android, and a host of services that most can’t do without – email, 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 a large part 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. Essentially, we all own large parts of us with little or no control.
In the United States, much of government action revolves around monopoly and antitrust violations. Both Alphabet and Facebook are in the crosshairs of regulators trying to figure out how to limit the performance of these platforms. Forty-eight attorneys general from different American states and the Federal Trade Commission have filed separate lawsuits against Facebook. The recent Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights has identified three main areas where improvements are desired.
The first is the right of users – you and I – to use our data and go to other platforms if we so choose – the right to data interoperability and portability. The second is non-discrimination – big giants like Amazon and Google cannot discriminate against products and services that are not their own. And the third is to look at it all from the point of view of whether the monopolies need to be dismantled and the limitation of what they acquire. About 40 years ago, there was a similar decision that split telecommunications giant AT&T into smaller companies. It’s not that this is unprecedented.
“Right to be forgotten”
The European Union is talking about strict rules that prevent monopoly and anti-competitive behavior. The EU’s right to be forgotten under the GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation – already gives back a certain amount of control over the data to users who ask for it. The GDPR rules are among the strongest safeguards for the privacy of the individual and were flatly rejected by the technology giants when they were passed. Now, however, the focus is more on ensuring that companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google don’t increase their monopoly power in the European Union. Germany has just drafted a law that does not deal with the abuse of monopoly power after it has entered, but with the question of how you can ever prevent such a situation from arising.
In Australia, the way to limit big tech was to get them to pay for new platforms to link to them. Both Facebook and Google, the two most affected platforms, have opposed it. Facebook went so far as to ban news links from Australia – but the government’s will prevailed.
In India the debate is still emerging. At the moment it is framed far more from the perspective of the content broadcast on the platforms than from the perspective of the monopoly powers exercised by the platform. In India, WhatsApp appears to be the most common method of communication with nearly 530 million users – around 50 percent 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 delivery, but also as a range of brands competing for our wallet share. And Google is slowly establishing itself as indispensable in all areas of our lives, including payments.
Here controlling narrative
While there are some measures in place right now, the Government of India wants to make sure they control the narrative on these platforms. And much of the recent regulation on social networking sites and OTT platforms appears to relate to the “appropriateness” of content and the right of the government to require that “inappropriate content be removed immediately”. And while understanding the ruling party’s insecurity of suppressing criticism – which it believes is unfair and politically motivated – the bigger challenge is to see how these platforms are “inappropriate” because of their control over our data. Content to be the glue that binds.
The Indian government has to deal with this problem of major tech and market distortion without having the ideological lens of just wanting to control content. Given the behavior of tech giants around the world right now, it is likely that they will give in to content demand to divert attention from the more difficult issue of using their power to distort the market. And for this market distortion, the government has to regulate. When they do, the rest will automatically fall into place.
The author works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audience. She is a writer, columnist, visiting scholar and filmmaker.