The five-hour-long grilling of the CEOs of four technology companies with a combined worth of $5 trillion, is a cathartic spectacle that comes by rarely.
The US Congress’ virtual face-off with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg & Google’s Sundar Pichai on 30 July, on anti-competitive practices and abuse of their dominant positions, saw intense scrutiny as well as a public dressing down of some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential figures.
The ‘Big Tech’ CEOs weathered antitrust questions on abusing their monopolies, killing competition, bullying rivals, to a range of other questions like “helping China”, censoring right-wing voices and helping Joe Biden.
India, with the world’s second largest internet users in the world, is among the most important markets for ‘Big Tech’ – a term used to refer to a handful of large technology companies.
“The ‘bigness’ of these large technology companies is reflected in their market valuations, user base, and range of product offerings,” said a recent report on ‘Big Tech’ in India by Tandem Research.
Apart from the Big Four – Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple – sometimes, this term (Big Tech) also includes companies like Microsoft, IBM, Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba.
The Quint accessed detailed reports and spoke to legal, technological experts as well as the CEO of Indian IT company, to find out what questions India could and should be asking ‘Big Tech’ companies, including, but not limited to the four that were summoned by US Congress.
The issue of data privacy on platforms owned by ‘Big Tech’ companies has emerged, perhaps, as the single largest concerns among users. The dominant positions of the companies in the Indian market has also raised worries about the ways in which our data is processed and sold to third-parties.
Companies use data to understand consumer behaviour, personalise digital services and recommendations, as well as predict new demand.
Moreover, Bezos’ admission at the hearing that Amazon may have violated its policy of not using third-party seller data to make business decisions, by using the data to create and promote its own brands, raises concerns for sellers on the platform.
“... their collective history of privacy failures and one-sided control of user activity have caught up to them, resulting in a stark lack of trust,” says Mozilla’s recent working paper, ‘A Framework for Forward-looking Tech Competition Policy.’
Kunal Kislay, CEO, Integration Wizards, a Bengaluru-based industrial automation company, said, “We get relevant searches from Google, Facebook suggests us friends we may know and Amazon suggests things that we may need,” adding, “Are these services really free? I guess the cost is our privacy. I believe we have made a choice and the price needs to be paid now.”
Facebook and its personal messaging service, WhatsApp, have emerged as the faces for the deluge of misinformation and hate speech in India, that has resulted in identity risks, communal and caste-based violence and mob lynchings.
Twitter, Instagram and Chinese-owned TikTok, have also been in the lens for struggling to filter fake news.
Globally, research has linked such incidents to misinformation, algorithmic amplification, and computational propaganda.
Even though platforms like Facebook have denied its characterisation as a media platform and generally shrugged editorial responsibilities, ‘Big Tech’ companies are as much editors, curators and amplifiers of news and information as they are publishers of content.
A recent report by the EU Disinfo Lab also draws attention to the funding and monetisation of disinformation. “It uncovers instances in which the Amazon Associates program played a key role in funding disinformation by providing ‘a constant flow of monetised links usable by a disinformation actor(s),” Tandem Research’s report points out.
In India, these issues are amplified “as they intersect with prevailing socio-economic and cultural factors, including low levels of literacy, a burgeoning youth population and social heterogeneity,” the paper further adds.
3. Parliamentary Committees
The antitrust hearing conducted by US Congress’ House Judiciary Committee has also turned the lens towards India’s Parliamentary Committees and the effectiveness of their functioning.
In particular, the Parliamentary Committee on IT, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who took over from BJP’s Anurag Thakur after the 2019 general elections, has little to show in terms of holding platforms accountable or asking tough questions.
Amid accusations of amplifying misinformation, violating privacy and compromising data of citizens, the only time the Committee decided to summon a big company executive was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in February 2019, based on a complaint by a Right-wing collective about Twitter’s alleged bias towards the Left-wing.
While the summon was a step towards getting powerful companies to depose before Parliament, experts questioned prioritising a partisan, political topic of unproven bias over examining violations of fundamental rights of citizens.
Speaking with historian Anthony Khatchaturian for his piece for The Quint, Tharoor, incumbent Chair of the IT Committee, referring to US Congress’ open hearings, said “That kind of spectacle becomes impossible because of strict rules of confidentiality governing the Parliamentary Committees in India.”
Tharoor went on to explain a major handicap: “Also, our committees can summon officials and outside witnesses but not ministers, which limits their effectiveness in influencing policy-making.”
4. Competition to Collaboration
Google, on 13 July, announced a $10 billion fund to “help accelerate India’s digital economy,” and two days later, confirmed a $4.5 billion investment in Jio Platforms. Facebook, too, announced a decision to invest $5.7 billion into Jio Platforms for a 9.9 percent slice, in April.
“How competition is turning into collaboration between foreign technology and domestic technology is a dynamic that will be interesting to watch. It will most probably not happen in public view but behind closed boardrooms,” said Gunjan Chawla, Programme Manager, Technology & National Security, at National Law University’s Centre for Communication Governance.
Chawla points out it isn’t just Facebook and Google’s investments into Jio but a dozen entities investing in the company. Even Qualcomm Ventures, the investment arm of Qualcomm Incorporated, will invest Rs 730 crore in Jio Platforms for a 0.15 percent stake, according to their statements.
Among the less spoken about investments in Jio Platforms is that by US-based private equity firm, KKR, which poured in Rs 11,367 crore in the company for a 2.32 percent stake.
“The name doesn’t mean much to Indians here but one of the partners at KKR is General David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA,” Chawla said, adding that with the kind of strategic partners that are on board, there are concerns about data being concentrated in very few powerful hands.
Udbhav Tiwary, public policy advisor at Mozilla, highlights the importance of interoperable technology, an issue that lies not just at the core of competition, but also to the architecture of the internet.
“Interoperability is the internet’s secret sauce, and integral to how it was built,” Mozilla’s paper on competition policy states.
The paper goes on to explain that a key element behind the success of the digital platform economy is the ability of new technologies to build on top of previous ones. And a vertically integrated company that offers two products, one of which is used through the other, will engineer compatibility to realise the benefits of integration.
“But that must not be an excuse for engaging in harmful self-preferencing resulting in the intentional exclusion of competitors,” the paper warns, adding that access to APIs by ‘Big Tech’ is vital in this regard.
An API is a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other.
“As the internet has become more and more centralised, more opportunity for gatekeeping behavior has arisen. As stated in our working paper on competition, there are some systemic changes needed in technology regulation, with standards and interoperability at their core,” Tiwari said.
Digital platforms can offer data and functionality through APIs that enable downstream innovation and interoperability.
Withholding APIs or not providing sufficient APIs to downstream businesses, many of which are Indian start-ups, can severely harm competition, innovation and further squeeze the open nature of the internet.