Big tech regulation can solve real problems, or only increase state control

It is very likely that the Indian government will announce significant regulations on big internet related technology companies. It is worth thinking about how the global and local contexts will interact to determine the politics of regulation. Globally, countries from Australia to America are trying to come to terms with the power of big tech. To simplify, the world was presented with two visions of the internet technology space: California Libertarianism and Chinese Authoritarianism. Chinese Authoritarianism is going strong. The California Libertarian model had astonishing success. But it is now coming under pressure because of its internal contradictions.

There are several issues. First, many of the big tech companies were not, as they claimed, mere platforms, but began to curate and generate their own content, creating possible conflicts of interest. Second, there is a suspicion that big tech companies were acquiring more monopoly power; this was not a world of free competition. There is a curious conjunction of technology and finance here. The more companies were valued, the more they needed monopoly rent extraction to be able to justify those valuations. Hence the business model and the need to drive valuations came into direct conflict with the culture they professed.

Third, the algorithms were not subject to accountability. They were, as Frank Pasquale put it, creating a black box society. There was an irony in an opaque algorithm being the instrument of a free, open and equitable society. Fourth, while the companies had immense economic impact, their distributive implications were more mixed. They empowered new players, but they also seem to destroy lots of businesses. The news business, for example, which is the subject of regulatory concern in Australia, has revolted against these companies. These companies themselves became the symbol of inequality of economic and political power.

Fifth, these companies seemed to display the ultimate hubris: Set themselves up almost as a sovereign power. This was most evident in the way they regulated speech, posing as arbiters of permissible speech without any real accountability or consistency of standards. Whatever one may think of the necessity of banning Trump from social media, the prospect of a CEO exercising almost untrammelled authority over an elected president, which was cynically exercised when that president was on the way out, only served to highlight the inordinate power and potential of hubris these companies could exercise. Facebook’s reaction to Australia is also nothing but hubris. If there is anything that characterises the politics of our age, it is the demand that economic and technological forces be re-embedded in sovereign control.

And, finally, there is also greater wariness of the effects of big tech on democracy and democratisation. The social legitimacy of California Libertarianism came from the promise of a new age of democratic empowerment. But as democracies became more polarised, free speech more weaponised, and the information order more manipulated, greater suspicion was going to be cast on this model. All democracies are grappling with this dilemma. Given that Scott Morrison called Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Facebook issue, it might seem that the Quad might need to be an alliance against both Chinese Authoritarianism and California Libertarianism!

But these global concerns will also be refracted through different national contexts. Poland, a government veering towards authoritarianism, ironically, made laws preventing media companies from censoring tweets. In India, this global context will now be used as a pretext to advance the regime’s aims. Some of these aims are unexceptionable, but they will also be twisted to unsavoury ends. India will justifiably worry about its own economic interests. India will be one of the largest bases of internet and data users in the world. The argument will be that this should be leveraged to create iconic Indian companies and Indian value addition. India can create competition and be more self-reliant in this space. Pushing back against big tech is not protectionism, because this pushback is to curb the unfair advantages they use to exploit an open Indian market.

A few years ago, India would not have thought this way because of its desire to court the United States. But the context has now changed. There is a genuine ideological push to Atmanirbhar Bharat. India can also justifiably point out that in China keeping out tech companies did not make much of a difference to financial flows or investment in other areas. Will Tesla not invest because we exercise more control over Facebook or Amazon? Second, big business in India, or rather the only ones that matter in this regulatory environment, is a votary of more protectionism; it senses a business opportunity. How much we can innovate is an open question. There is a fundamental impulse in this government to potentially control the information order as much as possible. It courted foreign tech companies so long as it suited its purposes. But the minute there is a whiff that they will be 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 rather deal with domestic monopolies, however badly run, to create what this column called “The RSS Meets Jio World” (May 1, 2019).

So as new regulations affecting tech companies are announced, it will be important to distinguish between regulations that are solving some real problems in this space, and regulation that is using this larger context to exercise more control. There are complicated issues here that genuinely need addressing. How do we enhance India’s technological capabilities? What is a better institutional structure to protect democracy and freedom from both untrammelled executive power and unaccountable corporate power? Does the new regulation of technology genuinely help create a level playing field or does it create new local monopolies?

But it will be easier to address those issues if the government showed a principled commitment to liberty, a manifest commitment to root out crony capitalism, an investment in science and technology commensurate with India’s challenges, and a general regulatory independence and credibility. We should not assume that just because big tech is being made to kneel, the alternative will be any better. Just look at television news for example: An indigenous, thoroughly broken and corrupt system that is almost totally amenable to government control. We need to grapple with the internal contradictions of California Libertarianism. But we will also need to be wary that these contradictions do not become the pretext for slowly legitimising Chinese Authoritarianism.

The writer is contributing editor, Indian Express

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