Last week, Twitter locked the account of Ravi Shankar Prasad, the union minister for information technology and law, for several hours. The minister protested but to no avail. The platform insists that American laws, as well as its own internal company policies, take precedence over Indian law.
Let us go beyond the finger-pointing and the obvious partisan relish from some quarters at the plight of the minister. It is clear that India is facing a crisis of sovereignty. What if other multinational corporations operating in India similarly refused to follow Indian laws? What if foreign car manufacturers, laptop companies or fast food chains said tomorrow that they want to be governed by the laws of Japan, China or America?
The simple answer is that those other companies won’t ever say that. Because each of those businesses depends on maintaining physical infrastructure in India for its survival. If our ports are closed to their goods, or their factories or distribution outlets in India are shut down, they can no longer operate.
But this does not apply to foreign tech platforms that service their users virtually. In real terms, these platforms do not need to be located ‘anywhere’. This is the first reason that the Indian government is struggling to enforce our regulatory framework upon these companies. Imagine how hard it is already to enforce our tax laws because of small island countries that act as tax havens. Now think about companies that could exist anywhere on the internet landscape.
The second reason is that we have no obvious domestic alternatives to these tech platforms. When these companies first began growing organically in India around 2009, they were often welcomed as a breath of fresh air; forces for building a global digital utopia. They rejuvenated family ties across continents, magnified pro-democracy voices during the Arab Spring, broke down traditional barriers of class, privilege and territorial boundaries. The disruption phase was, as it always is, exhilarating. Generally speaking, they did so much good that nobody thought about the kind of power that we were handing over to non-state actors. Over the last decade, we have organised business, media and the economy around them. If we switch them off now, the internet goes dark.
The third reason is that public opinion on this issue has not matured yet. As long as people think of the current fight as an ego clash between ministers, babus and BJP on one side and a corporation on the other, there will never be enough public support for the government to take severe steps. Most people see these platforms as a value addition to their lives, that they appear to enjoy for ‘free’. They do not yet think about what they are paying in return, which is personal data.
The idea of property is dynamic, and it evolves constantly. For the ancient cave-dwellers, perhaps the only form of property would be the food they had gathered for the day. Then, we progressed to owning livestock, land, debt, money as coins and then paper and now digital. The concept of intellectual property was invented. We learned to own our ideas by means of a vast legal framework of patents, copyrights, trademarks and so on. We understand that we own the minerals in the ground and that nobody should be able to mine them for free. We have not yet realised the same about personal data and how profitable it is for those harvesting it.
Because people don’t realise this, foreign tech platforms are cheekily able to spin attempts at government regulation as attacks on free speech! And because users of these platforms don’t realise that they are in fact paying customers of a for-profit corporation, the argument often sticks. This is perverse. Imagine if the government was trying to shut down a fast food chain because it refuses to pay taxes. And there are people taking a moral stand in favour of that fast food chain because they think the restaurant serves free food!
There is a reason the government could act so decisively on the TikTok ban. People saw the Chinese army on our borders. They recognised the danger immediately. When the government banned Chinese apps, it was overwhelmingly popular.
I do not want this to be only about problems, with no attempt even at a solution. So here is my suggestion. How about a “rolling ban” on tech platforms that do not comply; say on three days of the week, perhaps Monday, Wednesday and Friday?
The advantage of this approach is that it manages to impose a cost on tech platforms that are wilful violators without actual censorship. People can still say whatever they want on any platform. Because we know for sure that after every Monday, there will be a Tuesday. There is no fear, just a bit of inconvenience.
This inconvenience opens up the field to Indian tech platforms that would like to compete. At the moment, there is no reason for a common user to shift from a foreign tech platform. Everyone they know is already on it. Where is the incentive to start afresh, that too with a product that is likely to offer a glitchy user experience, at least in the beginning? But if they can’t use the foreign platform three days a week, there is suddenly some convenience in switching to a domestic one.
Of course, people will get around such a ban by using internet proxies and other similar stuff. But, that’s okay. The ban does not even need to be enforced too strictly. Remember that only ordinary people are likely to use things like internet proxies. The terrifying power of Big Tech is not in what regular people are saying on these platforms. The problem is organised narrative pushing. As open and democratic as it may seem, the narrative is actually driven by a handful of institutional entities. It’s hard to enforce our IT rules against a tech company located somewhere abroad. But if access to one of these platforms is legally forbidden on say Mondays, no established Indian entity can post there on that day. Because the latter have to follow Indian laws.
In some ways, this idea is borrowed from Big Tech itself. These platforms rarely ever ban people altogether. Instead, they use temporary locks and suspensions as a way to get the behavioural changes they want. To beat them, we have to think like them.