The scramble for gold on the Internet has transferred control of vast swathes of cyberspace to a very small and select group: Big Tech. This has made ‘significant social media intermediaries’ highly profitable ad businesses that have grown amid non-existent privacy and weak intermediary liability laws. They make the market, grow the market, and shape market rules. No ad business, or any business in history—not even Big Oil or Big Tobacco—has held so much power over consumers and the economy. This perverse power is, perhaps, the single biggest challenge that nations and peoples will have to grapple with. Accountable Tech must be India’s leitmotif in 2023 as it presides over the G-20, and a robust digital republic its sovereign mission as its turns 75 next year. This will need sensible politics, sophisticated policies, and a return to first principles.
Concentration of wealth is a competition issue and an economic policy question. Left unregulated, it brings about inequality in income and opportunity. But concentration of power when it comes to discourse—what is promoted, shared or suppressed—should be more worrying. Safe-harbour provisions in the United States along with self-regulation principles have allowed Big Tech to cherry pick what is to be acted on and what is to be ignored, effectively making it the arbiter of permissible speech. For example, anti-vaccine Twitter users have thrived during the pandemic, while, sometimes, less dangerous actors have had their posts labelled. In January, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, denounced the de-platforming of then US President Donald Trump by Twitter. “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” Merkel’s Chief Spokesperson, Steffen Seibert said, “Given that, the Chancellor considers it problematic that the President’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”
The issue here is not whether Merkel agreed or disagreed with Trump’s tweets. The question is—who censors him, how, and with what process and level of transparency? For the Chancellor and for many, Twitter cannot choose for itself when it seeks to be a provider of public goods, and when it is a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections. When governments around the world describe digital connectivity as a ‘utility’, information lines cannot be disrupted by religious, cultural or ideological filters. Like water, electricity and roads, significant social media will have to serve all, even those its management and owners disapprove of.
The instances when utilities (say electricity and water) are denied or disconnected are specific, rare and regulated. Even in the information age, only the state and its three pillars have this right. Global Big Tech is not part of this constitutional arrangement. There are checks and balances in place, with legal recourse available for all within the state and for external actors as well. Any alternative to this constitutional setup would be akin to legitimising foreign influence operations in domestic affairs. In an extreme, for a country that is almost perpetually in election mode, it would be tantamount to election interference. This may seem like hyperbole, but it is closer to the truth than we suspect. For instance, if an electoral candidate makes an incendiary speech on a physical stage, the Election Commission, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary act against him—not the private company that has set up the stage or the power utility that has provided an electricity connection to the mike. Is the online equivalent being honoured by Big Tech?
Regulation of Big Tech across democratic setups
Australia gets this. In February, it passed the News Media Bargaining Code. The code encourages intermediary tech firms to negotiate deals with media outlets, effectively mandating that Facebook and Google pay news firms for content. The law was passed after a protracted battle between the Australian government and social media firms. It escalated when Facebook removed content of certain Australian news agencies, several official government handles, emergency services, and civil society organisations from its platform. Prime Minister Scott Morrison held firm: “These actions will only confirm the concerns … about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
Canada, too, is making moves to curtail the wealth and discourse monopoly currently enjoyed by Big Tech. Just this week, Canadian lawmakers passed Bill C-10, which seeks to regulate the kind of content media streaming services prioritise on their platforms. The Bill, which is yet to be passed by the Senate, aims to make digital streaming platforms at par with traditional broadcasting services; the latter are obligated to increase the visibility and “discoverability” of Canadian content, and to set aside part of their profits to support a fund that promotes original Canadian productions.
Across the pond from the Americas, the European Union is also actively working towards mitigating the risks posed by the monopoly of Big Tech. Margrethe Vestager, Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, has stated that tech giants, “have the power to guide our political debates, and to protect—or undermine—our democracy.” In December 2020, Vestager and her office tabled the Digital Services Act (DSA), which seeks a systemic assessment of the varied social, economic and constitutional risks posed by the services provided by Big Tech.
The most decisive move yet has come from Poland, which has proposed a law to ‘limit’ the censorship tendencies of the tech giants. Soon after the deplatforming of Donald Trump by Twitter, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook: “Algorithms or the owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not. There can be no consent to censorship.” The new proposed law provides for a special mechanism for those whose content or profiles have been blocked/deleted by social media platforms, where they can complain directly to the platform, which is obligated to respond within 24 hours. After a review by a specially constituted “Freedom of Speech Council”, deleted content can be restored by order. If platforms do not comply, they can face a heavy fine of up to 50 million zloty (US $ 13.4 million).
Regulatory Frameworks in India
India, too, must take some tough calls. The vision of Digital India has advanced—from only four unicorn companies in 2014, India had 12 in just 2020 alone. Regulation must keep pace with this economic and social reality. It is absolutely critical that the Privacy and Data Protection (PDP) Bill, currently being examined by a Parliamentary Joint Committee be brought forth and enacted as law. Without the umbrella framework of the PDP bill, India’s regulation of Big Tech will be ad hoc, and may be misconstrued as a political instrument.
With respect to regulating intermediaries, the Indian government initiated a public consultation process in December 2018 and invited submissions from the public to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. A spectrum of civic, industry and academic actors participated. The rules were notified in February 2021, specifying clear compliance requirements within three months. Yet, the reaction of Big Tech platforms has been to delay, stall and obfuscate compliance.
It is high time that the actions of these companies were subject to systematic and rigorous Parliamentary oversight; but for that to happen, legislation is needed. Indian law and policy are rooted in our Constitutional principles. Indian policies on digital governance are no different, but they now need the imprimatur of Parliament to truly be effective. And should there be questions and grievances regarding the scope and constitutionality of the law, the courts of India will be the ultimate judge.
The objective of regulatory frameworks is to safeguard public interest, even (or perhaps especially) if it involves eroding the bottomlines of powerful vested interests. To once again quote the EU Commission’s Magrethe Vestager (in an intervention at a technology policy panel at the Raisina Dialogue earlier this year), regulating Big Tech, “Is a job, not a popularity contest”.
Perhaps, the real limitation is one of our imagination. In our minds, Silicon Valley is forever a happy, sunshine place, led by geeky, long-haired wunderkinds in t-shirts and flip-flops. The reality is Big Tech’s instincts today are driven by a single-minded sense of territoriality and collective impatience for different governance systems. For them, their ‘code is law’ and it is universal. That is at the crux of it.
Samir Saran @samirsaran is the President of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of Asia’s most influential think tanks. Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.