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Dangers of ‘Big Tech’ monopoly and how Indian products could change the game

India now needs homegrown products to break ‘Big Tech’ monopoly, check misuse of technology by extremist elements

By Devsena Mishra

Visualizing a future global power India, without the presence of Indian versions in technology industry is neither desirable nor practical. India is marching on an upward growth trajectory and after a long time, the country has a unique opportunity to reconstruct the national will and strengthen its cultural national identity. But at the same time, a diversified and vibrant democracy like India cannot remain ignorant of the factors that have the potential to disrupt its current trajectory. India is surrounded by regimes that have a history of using propaganda warfare and false narratives as instruments of their state policy. Besides this, there are known to be some billionaires in the western world, who see India’s rise on the world stage as their defeat and their instinct to impede India’s growth is only likely to grow in the future. We cannot underestimate the fact that this time their intentions and attempts have a backup of the BIG tech products too.

There was a time when the US policy was to assure the world democracies that “freedom and food can go together” and that assurance gave birth to concepts like ‘Food For Peace’ and to legislations like ‘Public Law 480’. Today the US policy has been shifted to ‘Technology For Peace And Freedom’ and somewhere the desire of feeding the world with American surplus still exists.

The ever-growing dominance of US based tech products in the Indian market is a matter of concern.

US search giant Google has a market share of 98.82% in India and with 265 million Indian users YouTube (Google-owned) has its largest audience base in India. Other US tech platforms from messaging apps (WhatsApp) to mobile operating systems (Android) and social media brands (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), all have a fast-growing user base in India. At present, Facebook has more users (over 269 million active users) in India than in the USA itself.

In a few years from now, every Indian will have a smartphone in their pocket, according to some recent stats as of December 2019, there are 502.2 million smartphone users in India and by 2022 this number will grow to 859 million users. As more and more Indian citizens explore the world through these apps, the presence of an Indian perspective is crucial.

The nature of recent anti-CAA protests indicates an alarming trend, where a simple and humanitarian move of the Indian government was twisted and manipulated (mainly with the help of digital and social media apps) in an unprecedented way. It has been observed that popular tech products (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) tend to embolden Islamists and breaking India elements. Their provocative and hate messages can now go viral in seconds (through blogs, social media posts, photos, videos, etc.). Propaganda can now be Livestreamed to thousands of viewers in a few clicks and the end-to-end encryption mechanism makes it difficult for security agencies to trace the inter-network communications of these apps. Their financing of these apps is digital and quick, and the power to activate countrywide networks is in their hands all the time.

Today the strength of a country is measured not just in terms of its economic and military prowess, but also in its ability win battle of ideas and opinions.

In the absence of homegrown tech products India faces the threat of losing this battle. After the abrogation of Article 370, the opposition was up in arms against curbs on ‘Internet rights’ of people living in Kashmir. They used their combined resources to internationalize the Indian government’s decision to shut down Internet services, deliberately ignoring the dangerous precedents of internet-based apps being used to promote extremist ideas in sensitive situations. These user-friendly apps give jihadist elements the cloak of anonymity and the power of communication at the same time. Unlike traditional media where promoting sponsored extremist content is difficult, these apps provide the means to rally millions of users in the name of ‘jihad’ simply on the click of a button.

From Canada-based Khalistani groups to the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) wing of Pakistani military and from banned Islamist organizations to PLA’s cyber propaganda arm, tech products are being widely leveraged for nefarious activities. Ironically, these products had stepped into the Indian market with huge promises of promoting innovation and creativity.

In 2018, while addressing Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said that there is always a possibility of “false narrative derailing the democracy, and today it has expanded many fold because of technology.” He also said that “there can be any number of dangers to a nation, where people are used to work on contaminated data,” and “countering false and malicious propaganda should be taken at a war footing.”

Indian government’s attempts to discuss issues pertaining to data localization are stonewalled by big tech companies with the arguments of “openness of internet” and “freedom of expression”. They posit that data localization will ‘Balkanize the Internet’. The national security concerns of democratic countries like India are criticized as “over-cynical” by these business strategists, but, interestingly they demonstrate a more flexible and negotiable approach when operating in Islamic countries. Social media giants like Facebook that advocate “voice and free expression” openly assure full support to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for their brutal blasphemy laws. In contrast, when the security agencies of India seek their cooperation in decrypting communications of terrorist elements and seek data on a potential national security threat, they play the “privacy” card. On one such hearing on privacy rights (Oct 2019) India's Attorney General KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court that “a terrorist cannot claim privacy,” and the big Internet platforms “can’t come into the country and say we will establish a non-decryptable system.”

Against these serious national security challenges, India’s response and potential course of action fall short. A few counter Twitter trends, a bunch of positive Facebook posts/YouTube videos and media’s occasional endorsements, is unlikely to put India in a winning position. At the end of the day these tech products belong to foreign hands who keep not just data servers but also their loyalty and accountability outside the boundaries of India.

Big tech platforms stated the goal of providing “power of voice” to millions of people is not above the national security goals of a sovereign nation and can never be used as an excuse for providing platforms/voice to Jihadist elements and virtual caliphate.

Exploitation of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. by terrorist and anti-national elements is a hugely debated issue and with each passing year, new dimensions are added to it. Serious discussions are going on around the world that how long and up to what level these big tech products can be allowed to challenge the idea of democracy, idea of government and the idea of the nation itself.

Almost all major powers are working proactively on developing alternative options to these major tech products and the CLOUD Act (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data) enacted by the US Congress in 2018 has accelerated this. The CLOUD Act (which amends the Stored Communications Act of 1986) allows federal law enforcement agencies to compel US based technology companies to provide access to data stored on their servers regardless of whether they are in the US or on foreign soil. The CLOUD Act has the support of major US technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, etc. and if a foreign law enforcement agency (like that of India) needs access to electronic content stored in these data servers then they need to undergo an ‘executive agreement’ with the US government. In short, if the government of a country where these BIG tech products are in a dominant position (like in India, where millions of users transact every day) has to access its citizens’ private data stored in these US service providers’ data servers, for any national security-related concern, they will need to make a request to the US government first.

No democratic country can afford to take this matter lightly as the signs of controlling the nerves of sovereign rights of other nations are clearly there.

European politicians have already started talking about protecting their ‘digital sovereignty’ and there are apprehensions in Europe’s political environment about becoming a ‘Digital Colony’ in the hands of a few US tech companies. In a recent move, the government of France and its army decided to switch their computers and handheld gadgets from Google to Qwant search engine. Qwant is a French and German web service, which they believe is crucial for their national security concerns. Russia also has its version of Google called Yandex, whose market share in Russia is 44.38% and according to some recent news reports Russia has begun testing its national internet system that would function as an alternative to the broader web.

Post Independence, India has seen a long period when instead of achieving self-reliance in various sectors it became dependent. When unwarranted facilities had been provided to foreign industrialists and Indian entrepreneurs had been denied the options of manufacturing many items; when the interests of Indian farmers were put on stake for American farmers; when Indian youth were injected with the 'service industry' mindset and were trained to become a loyal employees of foreign firms, and India’s image was reduced to a ‘market’ and service-oriented economy.

The times have now changed and the ‘New India’ is more aware of its aspirations and has a holistic vision for its future. There is no reason why an emerging global power like India, with 1.3 billion population, 800 million young minds and largest technological pool in the world, should not start brainstorming for an Indian version of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and other BIG tech products.

The monopoly of only a few foreign tech tycoons is neither a good sign for the tech industry nor for national interests.

At the same time, India would never opt for a Chinese model of protectionism or Islamic nations’ rigid approach; both do not suit the instincts and temperament of this country. A country like India, which has a surplus of young talent, can deal with this challenge in the Indian way.

India has the potential to disrupt the tech industry and make it a level playing field and for that, if needed a joint bloc of like-minded nations like Japan, Israel, Russia, France, Germany, Australia and other friendly and technologically robust countries from the Eurasia group can be made partners too.

Sooner or later, the big tech monopoly in the tech Industry will certainly be disrupted and it would be good for the health of the global technology industry if a bloc led by India would lead this disruption.

(Author promotes advanced technologies, start-up ecosystem and government’s business and technology related initiatives like Digital India, Make in India and Startup India etc.)

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