View: The great Indian social media circus and threat of digital giants

In the US, a war appears to have commenced in earnest against big tech. Concerned that opaque processes and unconstrained financial muscle will lead to absolute dominance in ecommerce, entertainment and information dissemination, lawmakers are trying to overhaul old antitrust laws to curb the power of these corporations.

Rather than enact privacy regulation that will allow them to redesign and recalibrate their technologies to achieve a new modus operandi, US Congress is attempting to break them up and diminish their power. Facebook, Google and Twitter are justifiably concerned.

India is a different story. The antics of Twitter — two of whose recent acts have included denying an Indian minister access to his account for an hour because of a US copyright violation, and redrawing the map of India to deny Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, for which the hapless Indian head of Twitter has been charged in a court of law — seem like direct provocations.

And, by appointing a non-resident American, Jeremy Kessel, as its Indian resident grievance officer, while assuring GoI that it intends to comply with its new IT rules that came into effect on May 25, Twitter continues to mock India’s attempts to prosecute any form of non-compliance.

The story does not end there. For, even though Facebook and Google claim to have complied with the new IT rules — including making public the monthly list of content takedown requests — GoI continues to investigate WhatsApp for anti-competitive behaviour.

These threats sizzle, but nothing ever comes of them. This may be because digital giants represent two types of monopolistic threat in India. The deleterious impact of the first type can be easily measured, penalised and rectified. One instance of this is the case brought against Amazon and Flipkart on the grounds that they granted concessions to preferred sellers, resulting in the loss of business for other small retailers on their platforms. Even if GoI’s motivation to pursue this case is fuelled by the need to placate a few large local competitors, the need to curb marketplace dominance is warranted.

The second type of threat is more difficult to measure or rectify. Social media firms not only enjoy economic dominance in an industry invisible to the naked eye, but also control the conversations and the mental dictionary of the citizenry, with the added capacity to provoke profitable unrest. Yet, once this convenient excuse for inaction is dispensed with, it is apparent that, in the absence of home-grown alternatives, the government will greatly depend on these companies to monitor its own people.

Stern privacy regulation and punitive restrictions will only threaten GoI’s own interests. This may be the reason for the delayed passage of the Personal Data Protection Bill. This may also explain why nothing consequential has been initiated against WhatsApp, despite the fact that the Delhi High Court granted the Competition Commission of India (CCI) a free hand when it quashed WhatsApp’s appeal to be spared being probed by the agency over its updated privacy policy.

How, then, will this circus play out in India? History may show the way. The Roman circus was, after all, a free entertainment that elevated the State by distracting the populace. And the carousel of mock battles and triumphal celebrations was especially useful when the State was loath to commit to a course of action that would tie its hands, but was even more fearful of appearing weak in the eyes of a mob who could depose it in a fit of nationalistic or righteous rage.

Is it any wonder, then, that GoI takes issue with the lèse-majesté of these companies, and does nothing? And can there be any doubt that social media firms resist government diktats not from some moral imperative, but because they desperately desire the guaranteed safeguards that accompany definitive regulation? After all, the absence of a statute is no guarantee against a future lawsuit.

Once GoI has found that happy middle-ground that allows it to control social media companies without infringing on its own right to control the public conversation, the boon of regulation will be granted. Once regulated, these firms will be left to their own devices — literally — allowing technology to do what it does best: capture personal data and advertising share. And both GoI and these foreign intermediaries may begin to enjoy some measure of peaceful coexistence.

But unlike in ancient Rome, the Indian consumer — whose data, eyeballs, opinions and actions are the only commodities that can be traded or restricted — may end up paying for the show.

Tankha is former head, Citi Merchant Services, US, and Banerjee is professor of marketing, University of Michigan, US

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