Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes on large tech: Between California and China
It is very likely that the Government of India will announce significant regulations for large internet-related technology companies. It is worth thinking about how the global and local contexts work together to determine the policy of regulation. All over the world, countries from Australia to America are trying to grapple with the power of big tech. To simplify matters, two visions of the internet technology space were presented to the world: California Libertarianism and Chinese Authoritarianism. Chinese authoritarianism is strong. The California libertarian model has had amazing success. But now it’s coming under pressure because of its internal contradictions.
There are several problems. First, many of the big tech companies were not just platforms, as they claimed, but started curating and generating their own content, which created potential conflicts of interest. Second, there is a suspicion that large tech companies have gained more monopoly power; This was not a world of free competition. There’s a strange connection between technology and finance here. The more companies were rated, the more they needed the monopoly rent to justify these ratings. As a result, the business model and the need to drive reviews came into direct conflict with the culture they were manifesting.
Third, the algorithms were not accountable. They created, as Frank Pasquale put it, a black box society. It was ironic in an opaque algorithm that was the tool of a free, open, and just society. Fourth, while businesses have had a huge economic impact, their impact on distribution has been more varied. They have empowered new players, but they also seem to be destroying a lot of businesses. For example, the news business, which is the subject of regulatory concerns in Australia, has rebelled against these companies. These companies themselves became symbols of the inequality of economic and political power.
Fifth, these companies appeared to be showing the ultimate hubris: they posed as almost sovereign power. This was most evident in the way they regulated language, posing as arbiter for allowable language with no real accountability or consistency of standards. Whatever one might think of the need to get Trump off social media, the prospect of a CEO wielding almost unimpeded authority over an elected president cynically exercised when that president was on his way out served only to highlight the excessive power and potential of hubris these companies might wield. Facebook’s reaction to Australia is nothing but hubris, too. If there is one thing that characterizes the politics of our time, it is the requirement that economic and technological forces be re-embedded in sovereign control.
Finally, the effects of big tech on democracy and democratization are more cautious. The social legitimacy of California libertarianism was based on the promise of a new age of democratic empowerment. But as democracies became more polarized, freedom of speech more armed, and the order of information manipulated, this model became more suspect. All democracies grapple with this dilemma. Given that Scott Morrison called Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Facebook issue, it seems the Quad must be an alliance against Chinese authoritarianism and California libertarianism!
But these global concerns are also broken by different national contexts. Poland, a government turned to authoritarianism, ironically has passed laws preventing media outlets from censoring tweets. In India, this global context is now being used as a pretext to advance the regime’s goals. Some of these goals are not exceptional, but they are also twisted for unsavory purposes. India is right to worry about its own economic interests. India will be one of the largest internet and data user bases in the world. The argument will be that this should be used to create iconic Indian businesses and Indian value creation. India can create competition in this area and be more independent. Pushing back against big tech is not protectionism, because that pushing back is meant to curb the unfair advantages they use to exploit an open Indian market.
A few years ago, India would not have thought so because it wanted to woo the United States. But the context has now changed. There is a real ideological boost to Atmanirbhar Bharat. India can also rightly point out that the absence of tech companies in China did not have a major impact on financial flows or investments in other areas. Won’t Tesla invest because we have more control over Facebook or Amazon? Second, big business in India, or rather the only thing that matters in this regulatory environment, is a voter for more protectionism. it senses a business opportunity. How much we can innovate is an open question. There is a fundamental impetus in this government to control the order of information as much as possible. It has courted foreign tech companies as long as it served its purposes. But once there is a whiff that they pose a threat to this government’s idea of an information order and cultural control, the government will find ways to tame them. In the long run, it would be more like domestic monopolies, however bad they might be, to do what this column “The RSS hits Jio World”(May 1, 2019).
When new regulations for tech companies are announced, it is important to distinguish between regulations that solve some real problems in this area and regulations that use this larger context to exercise more control. There are complex issues here that really need to be addressed. How do we improve India’s technological capabilities? What is a better institutional structure to protect democracy and freedom from both unimpeded executive violence and inexplicable corporate power? Is the new regulation of technology really helping to level the playing field or creating new local monopolies?
However, it will be easier to address these issues if the government has a principled commitment to freedom, an obvious commitment to eradicating crony capitalism, an investment in science and technology commensurate with India’s challenges, and an overall independence and credibility of the Regulators shows. We shouldn’t assume that the alternative will be better just because big tech kneels down. Take a look at the television news, for example: an indigenous, completely broken and corrupt system that is almost entirely open to state control. We have to deal with the internal contradictions of California libertarianism. But we also have to be clear that these contradictions are not becoming a pretext for a slow legitimation of Chinese authoritarianism.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 20, 2021 under the title “Between California and China”. The author is an editor at Indian Express