In the Uber Files investigation led by The Guardian under the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists or ICAJ, the leaked documents provide evidence of law breaking, lobbying world leaders, using stealth technologies to evade raids and opaque algorithms deployed by the Uber Corporation in 2012-16. In the documents, there have been instances where Uber executives have sanctioned the use of stealth technologies like the ‘Kill Switch’ to evade regulations and efforts of investigative agencies for a fair probe in India, Belgium and other countries.
On similar lines, reports indicate that e-commerce giant Amazon spent more than Rs 8,000 crore in India on legal fees in 2018-20. There are numerous incidents like these where regulators are in a Catch-22 situation of regulation and innovation. The Uber Files tell how technology platforms deploy a multi-pronged strategy to subvert public opinion with sponsored academic work, allying with public officials, and wilfully stifling investigations of law enforcement agencies to dodge regulatory efforts for better transparency, accountability and public scrutiny of their architecture.
In response to these documents, the Uber spokesperson responded, “We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is not in line with our present values.” But policymakers and regulators can’t rely on rhetorical assertions of technology companies to do public good. In our work and review of challenges related to the regulation of technology platforms across the world, we have observed that these concerns arise when corporations who build innovative platforms can attract large swathes of users without rigorous accountability, which gives them asymmetrical bargaining power to dictate terms and conditions to regulators, users and competitors.
The digital public goods approach
Public officials worldwide want to attract start-ups that bring in much-needed innovation. So, in the case of the Uber Files, the question that arises is how can democracies enforce platform accountability that balances security and privacy concerns and enable innovation? Is it a paradox? In our understanding, India has somewhat resolved this contradiction using the Digital Public Goods Approach and robust data protection commitment.
First, sensitive personal information should be under public authority with rigorous transparency and accountability protocols. We think India’s single sign-on service MeriPehchaan through DigiLocker can be a gateway for user identity verification based on open-source architecture and interoperability. This way, the user data is secure and the private platforms can seamlessly access the authentication credentials like an offline identity card issued by a public authority. It will secure cross-border flows and keep local data locally.
Second, today’s consumers buy, sell, transact and pay for most things digitally. Nation-states must ensure that participation in the digital economy through a public goods approach–the ability to pay shouldn’t be a barrier to access and access to one individual is not at the expense of others–is followed. To do this, nation-states need to ensure the development of open source, interoperable and accountable public rails in digital commons like identity, payment systems, e-commerce, health and social security.
Some critics might contend that we advocate for public sector organisations equivalent to the digital economy. The case of payment innovation Unified Payment Interface (UPI) will clear their doubts. UPI was a technology product developed by National Payment Corporations of India–an initiative of the Reserve Bank of India and Indian Banks’ Association and a non-profit corporation–to streamline payments in India in 2016. In 2022, UPI leads the transaction volumes in the Indian payment system across all payment channels. However, as per Q1 2022, private applications that use UPI services like PhonePe, GooglePay and PayTM account for over 94 per cent of UPI transactions and 92 per cent of value.
Levelling the playing field
Third, the Indian Parliament is committed to strict data protection legislation in addition to digital public goods.
The UPI story shows that when the State develops foundational architecture, private corporations can build their innovative products seamlessly. It quickens the speed of innovation as this model avoids the concerns associated with private platforms: Monopolisation of data, gatekeeping powers, lack of interoperability, the opaqueness of algorithms and data security.
The Uber Files investigation is a lesson for regulators, researchers and academics worldwide about the risks associated with the platformisation of digital economies. The way forward is to harmonise policies around the world regarding algorithmic transparency, the development of digital public goods, and robust data governance protocols. In India, substantial work on digital public goods is already underway. Still, there is a need to solidify these gains by adopting a data governance law and working with technology platforms for algorithmic transparency that enables innovation and fair competition.
The open data platforms in India under the digital public goods approach empower citizens by levelling the playing field and fairly competing in the digital economy against big technology corporations.
Arvind Gupta is an Adjunct Professor of Data and Digital Economy and Head – Digital India Foundation. Aakash Guglani is a Policy Associate at the Digital India Foundation. Views are personal.