Almost a decade ago, in the wake of the Arab Spring, technology and social media companies were celebrated across the globe as harbingers of new modes of democratic participation and individual freedoms. Cut to the present, and there is growing tech-lash against Big Tech companies, with concerns ranging from market monopolization to interference in democratic processes.
This report examines the impact of Big Tech companies on Indian markets and society, and the policies needed to align Big Tech trajectories with healthy markets, individual freedoms and societal wellbeing.
We spoke to 40+ thought-leaders in India, including representatives from civil society, Big Tech firms, Indian start-ups, academia, government, regulators, and the media. We supplemented this with a comprehensive review of 400+ academic and literary pieces and several structured discussions on the topic.
We made a micro-site to share our findings - do have a look : https://bigtechinindia.com/
What is Big Tech ?
Big Tech is a concept, rather than a static set of companies. Four conceptual markers help identify Big Tech:
- Data-centric models: The collection, analysis and monetization of data is central to their business models.
- Network Effects: They have achieved immense scale quickly through network effects. This insulates them from competition, contributes to their size, and often results in market dominance.
- Infrastructural role: They also provide essential market and informational infrastructure for a digital economy and society.
- Civic Functions: Through their consumer-facing products and services, that enable essential services like news, commerce and societal interactions, they increasingly play civic functions in society.
How is Big Tech transforming India's digital economy and society?
- Market Power : Big Tech companies provide digital infrastructure for other businesses; promote R&D and innovation; and have the capacity to represent industry perspectives in policy discussions. But they also have certain anti-competitive and monopolistic practices. They are able to use their position as both platform providers and platform participants to privilege their own products and services and enter new product markets. Their interests are also often over-represented in policy discourses.
- Informational Gateway: Most Indian internet users rely on one or more Big Tech platforms to access information, communicate, and participate in political and social life. But this also gives them inordinate influence in shaping the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech. Through their algorithms which curate and amplify news and information, they wield immense gatekeeping powers. Their platforms also facilitate the spread of misinformation and are prone to politicisation.
- Privacy: Big Tech companies enable access to a wider and personalised range of services. In addition to consumer convenience, such personalised services can allow users to feel visible and empowered. But the extensive collection of granular data also undermines individual and group privacy, as well as capacities for self-determination
- Sovereign Interests : Big Tech companies augment state capacity through the provision of digital infrastructure, by using data for social good, and enabling the state to communicate with under-served populations.But the intersecting of Big Tech companies’ interests and State functions raises concerns around democratic accountability and sovereign independence, the health of domestic markets, law enforcement, and equitable taxation.
What are the polices needed to align Big Tech trajectories with individual freedom, healthy markets, and societal well-being?
- Update Competition Policy to include control over data and network effects.
- Platform Neutrality, so that Big Tech platforms cannot unfairly discriminate against other businesses using their platform.
- Platform Interoperability, to enable consumer choice and reduce the weight of network effects.
- Publisher Ethics, so that News and social media platforms are held to the same ethical standards as legacy media.
- Algorithmic Accountability, to identify, assess and penalise harmful algorithmic amplification.
- Media Literacy, to enable citizens to take more considered decisions
- Individual and Collective Rights, for citizens to take decisions about how their data is collected and processed by large tech companies, and hold these companies accountable for misuse.
- Data Stewardship Models, that allow individuals to safely share their data with businesses.
- Privacy Protecting Business Models that reduce Big Tech companies commercial dependence on processing of personal data.
- Build State and Market Capacity, by investing in education, research, entrepreneurship and other kinds of societal capital
- Equitable Taxation to ensure that developing countries can gain fair and reasonable tax revenue from Big Tech firms.
- Better Cross-border Flows to ensure that transfer of data outside India does not inhibit domestic innovation, law enforcement or other services.
Principles for Competing Values
Almost all policy pathways require balancing between competing priorities and interests. Choosing between them is a matter of competing public values, not questions of right or wrong, nor a matter that can be resolved by more evidence alone.
We propose the following normative principles to help steer between competing public values, and guide India’s digital economy and society.
- People First : Innovations should prioritize individuals’ agency, material well-being, autonomy, and democracy
- Regulation for Innovation: Regulation will be required to ensure that innovation is aligned with societal trajectories.
- Accountability and Transparency: A vibrant public discussion on the role of technology will help navigate the uncertainty that may result from technological innovation
- Protect by Default: Technology should protect its users by default to ensure the well-being of each individual, especially vulnerable groups.
- Build Collective Resilience: Society and communities need to be strengthened to collectively maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of technology.