Head off digital colonialism: How Indian IT can compete with Google and Facebook and show the world a better way
By Mishi Choudhary and Eben Moglen
The world’s major societies are now wrestling with the enormous social power wielded by the internet’s “platform companies”.In Europe they speak of “GAFA”: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Twitter, Uber and other aspirant companies hover just out of the main ring.
Billions of people provide data about their personal lives and business activities to these companies, which are using that data as leverage to change human behaviour to their economic advantage. Governments everywhere see them as rivals to their power and also invaluable allies. India and its government too face immense challenges, but also an extraordinary opportunity, if GoI can lead India in the right direction.
Essentially, three basic approaches to deal with the power of these American data miners have emerged.
First, the US government sees them as pillars of post-industrial American power, and as an immense national security intelligence resource. It is therefore their strategic ally. Second, proponents of “digital sovereignty”, mostly autocracies, have chosen to build national search engines and social media structures, favouring domestic private market entrants (as has happened in Russia and China), and by exercising control over national telecommunications networks to block the US companies. Third, the European Union has attempted to control the companies’ behaviour by regulation and litigation.
Europe’s open and democratic societies have been as fully colonised by the platforms as the US: the plurality of their citizens’ email is read by Google, most of their citizens’ social and family lives are surveilled by Facebook, and so on. The European Commission and national governments mostly attempt to regulate the companies through competition and “data protection” law, both of which assume that profiting by collecting information about customers and their behaviour is essentially legitimate, and that the states’ functions should be to require a “level playing field” for local companies, and the acquisition of uninformed “opt-in” clocks from the citizens whose intimate lives are being commoditised.
Even the pursuit of these very narrow neo-liberal goals, however, means undertaking vastly expensive and complex litigation against the platform companies, expending time and taxpayers’ money on the largest scale, with uncertain results at best.
India has a golden opportunity to find a fourth way. The market in internet services — that is, information technology for use by people in their daily lives — is now dominated by companies that provide “free” services in return for massive privacy invasion. This model, in which the consumer is the product, is doing enormous harm to the human race and destroying our privacy environment completely, in order to provide people supposedly “free” email and other forms of social communication, calendaring and similar services “in the cloud”.
Autocratic “digital sovereignty” like China or Russia cannot be India’s way: more than any other society, India stands to benefit economically from the open worldwide Net. No Indian government can afford to use its law officers, its Competition Commission and its taxpayers’ money to spend years litigating with Google, Microsoft, or Facebook over individual business practices, in the European style. But to take an American free-market position with respect to the US platform companies is to endorse an immense act of digital colonialism, in which the private lives of more than a billion Indian citizens are delivered “free” to the data miners.
India’s greatest advantages in 21st century global economic competition are the intelligence and education of its people. Software- and network-based service industries are core components of any Digital India economic strategy. European countries intuit that spending hundreds of millions of euros and years in litigation with Google over whether search results prioritise Google services contributes less to European welfare than building a European business that would compete with Google globally. But this isn’t aerospace and they don’t know how.
India can. India can invent competition that challenges not just the platform companies but their basic, anti-environmental business model. Indian internet companies can provide global digital service platforms that protect, rather than destroy, privacy. Indian internet industries can provide reasonably priced, universally available, privacy respecting services that compete directly with services provided by the US data miners, priced reasonably in local terms in all the developed and developing societies.
Indian industries, providing state-of-the-art cloud services — social networking, email, travel, calendaring, on-line retailing everywhere, etc — could very profitably, given Indian cost structures, compete to provide those services to everyone in the world who has seen the error of “free” services based on privacy invasion, and wants an alternative she can pay for, with confidence in the privacy technology that is all open source, and works in their interest rather than someone else’s.
This is “for-profit, pro-privacy IT for humanity.” And because of the economies of scale in this business, industry will be able to provide Indians with deeply subsidised or no-cost services, based not on invading or selling their privacy to multinationals, but as a consequence of the redistributive effect of selling first world consumers their data privacy as an export industry.
As a method of restoring competitive health to an industry, nothing succeeds like competition. India can not only secure its strategic economic role in the 21st century global order, not only provide its own people with a chance to raise themselves by serving their own needs and the world’s, but also help restore the privacy environment for all humanity by controlling the platform companies directly, positively, profitably, by making a better mousetrap. The world will beat a path to India’s door.
Mishi Choudhary is a technology lawyer. Eben Moglen is Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia Law School