Till recently, technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon were faced with a growing tech-lash. Concerns about the power and influence of these firms, not just on markets, but also on democratic processes, had even led to calls for the break up of Big Tech. In India, concerns ranged from unfair market competition to the spread of misinformation to digital colonialism. While Big Tech undoubtedly brings a range of benefits to governments, businesses, and consumers alike, it was also facing a crisis of legitimacy.
The outbreak of Covid-19 seems to have given Big Tech companies an opportunity to reinvent themselves, to win back public trust and legitimacy. In the US, the White House reached out to Google, Microsoft, and IBM, even before measures such as shelter-in-place were announced in several states.
Apple and Google recently announced that they will partner to launch an interoperable contact tracing tool, and Google now has a global movement tracker based on user location data for 131 countries, including India. It has also pledged $250 million in ‘ad-grants’ for agencies like the World Health Organization to share public health messages.
Facebook has three different types of data mapping tools which can provide researchers anonymous location data to anticipate the spread of the virus. It has also been trying to curb the spread of misinformation on the platform, directing users to information from reliable sources like the WHO and CDC instead. In China, citizens find it difficult to step out of their homes, without Alipay’s stamp of approval.
India’s own collaboration with Big Tech
India too has jumped on the bandwagon of techno-solutionism — clamouring for tech solutions that can help address the crisis — whether it is the new Aarogya Setu app or the use of drones to monitor population movement. These apps pose threats to privacy, and mission creep could easily lead to unwarranted surveillance and abuse of power. Big Tech is also keen to play its part. Data collected through the Aarogya Setu app is currently stored on Amazon’s cloud computing service, AWS.
Facebook, and particularly WhatsApp, are essential for disseminating public health messages — the Narendra Modi government has launched a chatbot on WhatsApp to provide an emergency helpline and Covid-19 information. Google Maps, in partnership with MyGov and Smart Cities Mission team has also adapted maps to surface night shelters and food shelters in at least 30 cities in India. Amazon has set up Amazon Pay for donations, through which users can contribute to the PM-CARES fund, and other non-profits, via UPI.
The irony is that the same bigness that was a cause for concern earlier is now being seen as a crucial tool in the fight against the pandemic. And, as many smaller technology firms are unable to withstand the coming economic downturn, Big Tech is only going to get bigger. Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment in Reliance Jio is a case in point — while the rest of the global economy is on tenterhooks, Big Tech continues to march ahead. Moreover, as individuals and societies become increasingly willing to trade individual privacy for health and safety, the Big Tech business model, which American author Shoshana Zuboff has famously referred to as surveillance capitalism, is likely to be further legitimised, as well as become more pervasive as tech giants consolidate their entry into the healthcare market.
Lower state capacity is Big Tech’s opportunity
What does this mean for India? Even before Covid-19, Big Tech was already filling critical gaps in state capacity — from rolling out public wi-fi infrastructure to providing weather forecasting tools to investing in rural healthcare. This dependence is likely to increase. Take contact tracing for example. Contact tracing apps can work effectively only if there is adequate testing, in the absence of which they could also lead to unintended and harmful consequences such as profiling and discrimination.
However, it is precisely because of low levels of state capacity, that tech solutions like this become much seductive. And this tendency is likely to continue, as the state continues to prioritise technological solutions over investments in public health infrastructure.
Privacy was already being framed as tradable with other social goods, such as financial inclusion, and if the stakes are now increased to public health and safety, there will be even more takers. The market dominance of Big Tech is also likely to further increase as Indian tech startups, many of whom are already struggling, are further crippled by the crisis.
In many ways, Big Tech was already assuming the role of essential public infrastructure providers at a global level. This is accentuated in India because of low levels of state, market and R&D capacity. We must begin to regulate Big Tech as public infrastructure, especially as its power and influence increases in India.
Reining in Big Tech
A public utility lens, as author Sabeel Rahman argues, draws attention to the normative and regulatory challenges that arise from private control over public goods. In practice, this could mean a number of things. For one, preventing Big Tech companies from discriminating against other smaller players on its platform and keeping a check on strategic mergers and acquisitions — this will become even more important because of the effects of the economic downturn on startups. The Facebook-Reliance deal, for example, must be closely scrutinised by the Competition Commission of India, to assess how the data advantage accrued to these two giants as a result of the deal will impact smaller players in the market.
Further, it could imply much greater transparency on issues such as content moderation and algorithmic amplifications, as well as governance structures that enable domestic accountability. Given that Big Tech has its eyes set on the next hundred billion users, many of which are in India, it will not be easy for them to ignore such demands from India.
Of course, there are broader and valid concerns about having a ‘foreign’ private power providing such essential public infrastructure. On one hand, this underscores the importance of investing in public infrastructure and state and market capacity. But on the other hand, the ongoing pandemic also highlights the importance of the free flow of data, of a planetary data commons, and the dangers of thinking of data in terms of sovereign property or assets.
In a recent op-ed, associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Zeynep Tufekti argues that the lack of preparedness in America for Covid-19 can be attributed to the absence of system thinking, of examining and preparing for the second and third order effects of the virus.
In many ways, the current crisis resembles a humanitarian emergency. The biggest mistake humanitarian actors make is to rush in, motivated by the moral imperative to help, and a donor funding landscape that demands visibility, without thinking about the impact on local capacities, a suitable exit plan, and bypassing oversight mechanisms, all because of a ‘state of emergency’.
The Covid learning
Many of those lessons apply here as well. We need to start adopting a much more systemic and longer term view on the broader impacts of the crisis, including the role of Big Tech. This is particularly important for developing countries like India. Because Big Tech is in many ways part of India’s development story, not just a consumer product or service, it will be much harder to reign in the power of Big Tech at a later stage.
A few recent articles point out how Covid-19 could be a moment for Big Tech to save face and win back public trust. But, this must extend beyond donating masks or developing technological tools, to forging a new social contract for a more responsible tech ecosystem.
Seeking this will require a commitment by regulators and Big Tech alike. For regulators to resist techno-solutionism, demand higher standards, and greater accountability, and for Big Tech to harness their technological prowess toward developing new responsible business models. As if this wasn’t hard enough, the even trickier bit in India is that the state and ‘its volunteers’ are also vying for the role of Big Tech.
Urvashi Aneja is Director, Tandem Research @urvashi_aneja. Angelina Chamuah is Research Fellow at Tandem Research.
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