By Apar Gupta
As a growing number of Indians consume their news and content online, there are high chances that you are accessing this op-ed on a device with components manufactured in China. This long-standing dominance in computer hardware has now tipped over towards software deployment. Today, there are a growing number of online platforms with roots in China. This trend has not gone unnoticed. Local technology entrepreneurs have been visiting these technology companies in China to understand their growing scale and adoption in global markets, including India. There is a sense of admiration tinged with a hurt sense of national pride.
This insecurity has been growing in recent months as public opinion and commentary have focused on the growing dominance by China-centred companies. It has become an issue policy makers are engaged with. Critics point to the spread of disinformation as well as content and business models that appeal to the base instincts of users. There are also concerns around national cyber security due to the proximity of large Chinese tech companies to the Communist Party of China. Tangibly, this is demonstrated in growing demands towards data localisation or onerous compliances on not only Chinese but even other large foreign social media companies. These arguments reached a tipping point recently when following the skirmishes on the India-China border, Indian social media users mounted a large-scale campaign to remove “Chinese apps” from their smartphones.
These public responses and policy conversations are here to stay. At their very root is the unexamined premise of protectionism. Such prescriptions are often made on the basis of the policies which were adopted in China through barriers for foreign firms that were possible due to the unique and complex features of its nation-state at a specific time. Replicating it from the pure standpoint of imitating similar outcomes is a strategy prone to failure. For instance, one complication is that Chinese companies are among the biggest investors in local technology start-ups. Hence, to discern what is “Indian” and what is “foreign” is a moot issue as a natural consequence of globalisation.
Another consideration is that such prescriptions for protectionism have adverse ecological impacts towards broader innovation, which benefit local firms and end users. This has been demonstrated by economic studies, but also the fundamental political beliefs of the public internet. The internet, as much as it becomes a walled garden controlled by large corporations, is still at its root a technology which permits cross-border data flows and collaboration agnostic of physical jurisdictions, enabling functionality and value for each participant.
Hence, the prescription of bans, creation of regulatory barriers or even consumer boycotts are crude implements which do not satisfy the root of the issue, which is lack of adequate local innovation. This need arises from user demand for services which are not being met, and while many may question whether such technologies may even be developed, alternative models and nuanced prescriptions are absent. To build towards the future, not only for India but for the world, there are some solutions which merit examination.
It is important here to recognise that Chinese firms build products for closed societies, as evidenced in an influential Chinese Communist Party memo titled “Document No. 9”. The values that underlie state policy are of centralising control and viewing the internet as an extension of the political project of the state. While this is a point of concern, within it rests an important lesson of technology development being a function of the larger political economy of a state. Playing to the institutional culture of a country is a lesson which is worth emulating.
Unlike China, India is a multi-party state. It has elections, institutions which push back against the executive, and a Constitution that guarantees fundamental rights to all citizens and all of these are, at the very least, imperfectly practised. This poses a positive value that can be built out as more technology frameworks are built that integrate with our daily lives. While threshold issues centre on free expression in the age of big data, informational privacy impacts all data-side interactions. For instance, digital contact tracing technologies provide a basis for quarantine, exit and entry, availing public transit and even the ability to practically join employment. Here, risks arise even in the context of discrimination— for instance, how do these algorithms work? Do they objectively further the policy objectives? What risks do they create?
Many of these answers can be found when product design and legal safeguards; match each other. They arise from a Long jurisprudence of fundamental rights and administrative law, which India shares with other democracies and common law jurisdictions. Hence, leaning into these values offers a level of protection and user control which is a user expectation, something people expect and demand as they gain greater knowledge about technology. Within India and beyond. Hence, the freedoms guaranteed under the constitution can enable entrepreneurs to see them as feature rather than bugs. Tangibly, this maybe through product features and operational practises that can help grow the market for our technology innovations within and beyond India. To compete effectively globally, we may learn from the practices of successful global firms but have to focus on the needs and values of our own local users.
(The writer is executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, a think tank)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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