Need to stop the invasion of new tech colonialists

In a democracy, the media is supposed to allow all spectrum of opinion to be heard, however obnoxious.

Published: 31st January 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th January 2021 07:28 PM   |  A+A-

violence via social media, social media

For representational purposes

The last century can be rightfully named the era of democracy. No period in human history had so many countries choose their rulers through the power of the ballot. Despite its many faults, democracy gives power to the people. In India, voting is the only thing equal to the billionaire and the homeless, the elite ivy league educated upper class and the illiterate farmer in a remote tribal hamlet. Irrespective of caste, creed, language, religion, or gender, it gives every Indian a say in who should rule us and how. We may not get the perfect rulers, but at least theoretically, we have the power to change him or her through the ballot box.

We are entering a tyranny that would perhaps shut the small window of democracy forever. Or maybe, we have already entered it but busy as we are with the cute cat videos that pop up in our mobile phones, we have failed to notice it. Twitter banned Donald Trump, then sitting president of the US, from its platform. Trump had 88 million followers, and yet, Twitter concluded that they should permanently ban him due to the risk of incitement to violence. Maybe, he deserved to be booted out. But that is not the point. In a democracy, the media is supposed to allow all spectrum of opinion to be heard, however obnoxious.

The most powerful man in the world is at the mercy of a few techies, and if that does not convince you about the rise of the new world order, the new privacy policy of WhatsApp should. The sheer power of these tech giants is frightening. WhatsApp has no competition in India. Various WhatsApp groups have proliferated and have become a constant nag in everyone’s life. It has addicted millions to their phones. This media, along with its parent company Facebook, has sucked away an average of four hours every day from our life. If we calculate the manpower wasted in terms of GDP, it would be staggering.

This is neo-colonialism, where instead of cotton, minerals etc, the neo-East India Companies sell us piecemeal to the advertisers. And the tech giants have lobbied the US Government to threaten India with retaliatory tariffs, against India’s decisions in April 2020 to tax local revenue of internet companies such as Facebook Inc. In other words, they are not willing even to pay two percent tax to a country that has its most extensive customer base. IT cells of many political parties use such platforms to spread misinformation and hate messages with abandon, wrecking the social fabric of the country. India is the largest market, with more than 40 crore users for WhatsApp. Facebook has not given the data of its Indian user base since 2017, when it was 25 crores. And how do they treat us? By offering a privacy policy that is markedly different from what they have in Europe.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy asks Indian users to agree to their new data-sharing policy—sharing data from business conversations with Facebook. And true to the style of monopolies, they gave no choice to the user other than quitting the platform altogether. The new policy’s crux is that users will get more targeted and intrusive advertisements, as if we do not have enough of it. After a severe backlash, where many users jumped to alternate platforms, our new Master has compassionately kept the policy in abeyance for a few months. Compare this with their exclusion of such policies in Europe. Unlike India, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of Europe has real teeth to bite where it hurts.

In 2017, Facebook was fined €110 million by the European Commission for misleading it about the 2014 takeover of WhatsApp. The punishment for violation of its citizens’ privacy is to the extent of €20 million or four percent of the company’s annual global turnover. The new tech colonialists find India a fertile ground to hunt. The Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019 is still pending with the Joint Parliament Committee. Though it is more stringent than the existing laws, the proposed fine of `5 crore is small change for the tech giants.

The invaders of the past came in battleships. Now they sneak in through that shiny device in our pocket. If they want to do business in our country, we should lay the ground rules. Such private monopolies should be broken. We are supposed to be a significant IT power. Let us show it by developing alternate platforms like what China has done. And the Data Protection Bill should be as stringent as that of Europe. Else, it might be time for Indians to be prepared to be a colony once again. Do we really need to be ruled by a few tech billionaires and their coolies in Silicon Valley?

Anand Neelakantan
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy


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