2020 has been a trying year. Any assessment of the year will be incomplete without a review of the myriad ways in which technology impacted, shaped and influenced our daily lives (for the better and for worse).
The advent of the COVID-19 virus inadvertently also accelerated the adoption of several kinds of technology, especially video-first platforms and remote working softwares, as the world retreated indoors and physical spaces became no-go zones.
Meanwhile, the Indian government pushed ahead with dozens of policy moves aimed at shaping the country’s cyberspace. The Quint looks back at the year that was and takes stock of the top 10 developments that shapes India and us.
1. Ban on Chinese Apps
As the border conflict with China raged on along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Government of India, in an unprecedented move, banned 59 mobile apps, including TikTok, UC Browser and other Chinese apps on 29 June.
In its press release, the government called them "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order."
Following this, the government went on to ban over a 150 more apps, taking the total number of Chinese apps to over 200. The latest instalment came on 24 November when the Indian government blocked 43 more Chinese mobile apps under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, including Alibaba services, citing threat to national security.
Interestingly, none of the press releases mentioned China even though the apps banned were exclusively Chinese. However, as a strategic geopolitical move, many saw it as a means to teach China a lesson economically, by blocking access to one if its primary markets. However, whether such bans have actually had an impact is still up for debate.
2. Rise of Zoom & Video Calling
Among the unexpected winners in the technology space globally are video platforms that kept the world social amid the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus. From Zoom to Google, the adoption of video-first technology witnessed unparalleled acceleration.
Zoom has been among the undisputed winners during the COVID-19 pandemic. As it emerged as a household name across the country and globally, Abe Smith, the company’s head of international spoke to The Quint about responding to the lockdown, the future of video, plans for India, the competition Zoom is up against and taking a break from too much video calling.
“To give you a perspective, in India, we saw 67 times the growth in people signing up for free accounts and four times the amount of paid acquisitions.”Abe Smith, Zoom, Head of International
3. Ankhi Das & Facebook’s Struggle With Hate Speech
In perhaps the most controversial developments in India’s tech space, Ankhi Das, one of Facebook India’s topmost executives, allegedly prevented action against hate speeches by BJP leaders and even posted messages in open support of the ruling party.
The news sent shock waves across the country, especially in the context of the intermediary liability policy in India, Facebook’s content moderation policies and its alleged ties with the ruling BJP.
The controversy began on 15 August, when The Wall Street Journal report alleged that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South and Central Asia, had blocked action against leaders associated with the BJP and other Hindutva groups.
One of the examples quoted in the article was of BJP MLA in Telangana Raja Singh. By March of this year, they concluded Mr Singh not only had violated the company’s hate-speech rules but qualified as dangerous, a designation that takes into account a person’s off-platform activities, the publication reported.
Das eventually stepped down to pursue interests in public service, the company said in a statement on Tuesday, 27 October.
4. Regulating Non-Personal Data
An expert committee set up by the Union Electronics & IT Ministry (MeitY) in 2019 has come up with a framework to regulate and leverage non-personal data.
The “Report by the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework” recommends that “the world is awash with data” and it must be regulated in order to create economic value for the country and citizens.
The framework proposes a separate “new national law” to govern non-personal data as well as the creation of a Non-Personal Data Authority.
The 72-page report, however, has come under sustained criticism since its publication on 13 July.
Legal, policy and technology experts have pointed out the vagueness in language, lack of a proper inter-ministerial or public consultation, contradiction with other policy proposals, and the provision of wide powers to the government to collect and use data without judicial oversight.
5. Antitrust Action Against Google
India’s antitrust body, the Competition Commission of India, on 9 November ordered an investigation into allegations that Alphabet Inc’s Google was abusing its market position to promote its payments app as well as forcing app developers to use its in-app payment system.
In its order, the CCI said that Google Play Store’s in-app billing system, that will from 31 March 2022 force app developers to use it and pay a 30 percent commission, should be investigated.
This comes at a time when the United States Department of Justice has also filed a landmark antitrust lawsuit against the tech giant in October.
The Justice Department, describing Google as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet,” has alleged in its 64-page lawsuit that the $1 trillion company is “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States.”
In a dramatic move, amid growing calls among developers and founders for an Indian app store, Paytm, on 4 October, announced the launch of its ‘Mini App Store’. The launch was accompanied by a pledge to help homegrown startups scale and “Indian developers to take their innovative products to the masses.”
6. Regulation of OTT Streaming Platforms
The Cabinet Secretariat, on 11 November, issued a notification bringing “online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms” under the jurisdiction of the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.
The notification, issued under the allocation of business rules, essentially means that the Union I&B Ministry will now have principal administrative jurisdiction over online news portals and OTT/streaming platforms.
This has been under consideration for months and would allow the Ministry to regulate online news portals as well as streaming platforms through legislation.
While the government has described the move as providing a level playing field and creating an enabling regulatory environment, the notification comes amid concerns of curbs on freedom of expression and innovation on OTT platforms.
While streaming platforms have always batted for self-regulation, experts say there is indeed “a degree of nervousness” about the shape the ministry’s regulation may take.
7. A New Model for Personal Data Sharing
NITI Aayog has presented a draft policy that allows individuals to “seamlessly and securely access their data and share it with third party institutions.”
The new draft policy, titled ‘Data Empowerment And Protection Architecture’ (DEPA) argues “India needs a paradigm shift in personal data management” and proposes a consent framework that would allow individuals and small businesses to “access, control and share personal data” with third party institutions.
The reports seeks to enable organisations to share the personal data of an individual with one another through the concept of “consent managers” – that will manage people’s consent for data sharing.
In doing so, the policy frames this new data governance model in the context of ‘individual empowerment’ by allowing the seamless exchange of personal data among institutions in a secure manner while minismising privacy harms.
8. Facebook, Google Invest in JIO
On Wednesday, 22 April, Reliance Jio and Facebook announced their mega deal worth Rs 43,574 crore where Mark Zuckerberg’s company picked up a 9.99 percent stake in Jio platforms. The strategic partnership, according to industry analysts, is aimed as operationalising e-commerce and digital payments services.
A day after Facebook acquired a 9.99 percent stake in Reliance Jio’s platforms, retail giant Amazon announced it has pledged Rs 10 crore to “immediately expand” its pilot project to onboard local stores.
However, Facebook wasn’t alone in investing in Jio. On 15 July, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced an investment of Rs 33,737 crore.
Google’s investment of $4.5 billion (Rs 33,737 crore) in Jio Platforms Ltd for 7.73 percent stake aims to accelerate India’s digital economy over the next five to seven years through a mix of equity investments, partnerships, and operational infrastructure and ecosystem investments, CEO Sundar Pichai said.
9. 26% FDI in Digital Media
A “clarification”, issued by the Union Commerce Ministry, has permitted three categories of digital media entities “registered or located in India” up to 26 percent foreign direct investment through the government approval route and has given companies one year’s time to align with the policy.
Is this an unexpected move though? Not really.
Experts said that FDI regulations in the digital media space were expected, given the drastic surge in news consumption through online means.
The Quint spoke with industry experts who said the message from the government is that news media is a sensitive sector and that it wants to have a say, is where foreign investor comes in.
10. India Joining Global AI Body
India, on 15 June, joined the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence as one of the founding members to jointly work towards an ethical, human centric development and use of AI.
This multi-stakeholder global coalition includes Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Born out of successive G7 summits in 2018 and 2019, the GPAI has also been notable for China’s absence. While non-G7 members like India, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand have found a place at the high-tables for a joint development of AI standards, this new coalition is also being seen as a means to counter China’s growing influence in the technology.
This new international grouping comes at a vital time when consensus building around the usage of AI appears to be at crossroads.
While the technology finds applications in nearly every social sector, the use of AI in areas such as facial recognition have been condemned for abuse by governments and the police around the world in surveillance and racial profiling.