Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp suffered a six hour worldwide outage on October 4 beginning in the forenoon US time. The incident caused by technical factors led to these platforms to cease functioning.
Its impact which had economic implications was felt all over the globe, obviously more in countries which were in the midst of their work day. Facebook, the social networking site, and, WhatsApp the instantaneous messaging service, is extensively used by small businesses in addition for social and personal purposes. The outage was one more reminder of the pervasive almost global presence of tech giants and their enormous influence on contemporary human life.
A day after the outage, but in no way connected with it, a former employee of the company, Frances Haugen, was a witness at a US Senate hearing on Facebook’s work systems. This was not the first hearing on the work methods of the tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. The hearings have focussed on their monopolistic policies and the need to bring them under effective regulation. However, some observers feel that Haugen’s testimony alleging that the company was motivated by greed to such an extent that it ignored its own research was unprecedented. That research had shown the harmful effect of its policies on children.
Earlier the company was charged for inadequate precautions to prevent or stop the uploading of hate speech and provocative comments that spread social disturbance. But Haugen has revealed the company’s callous and greed motivated malice. This makes the case for regulating such companies much stronger. The problem though is how to put in place rules which will provide checks without harming the right to free speech and damaging the economy.
On its part India has grappled with the issue of imposing checks on social media platforms so that they adhere to national laws for some time. Clearly, these platforms' contention that they were not responsible for the contents of the messages put up on their sites was not acceptable; nor, their argument that their encryption systems would weaken if they were required to locate the originator of illegal messages. At the same time there were genuine concerns that regulations should jeopardise individual privacy. This too had to be weighed against security concerns and infringement of laws when unacceptable posts on individuals were posted on these sites. Taking all concerns into consideration the government announced rules, earlier this year, that require these platforms to be able to locate the originator of illegal messages, take down objectionable messages and address grievances through the appointment of India-based grievance officers.
The regulations became somewhat controversial but in August the government told an Indian court that Twitter—which was under focus for delaying the acceptance of the regulations--- was complying with Indian rules, including through the appointment of an India based grievance officer. This shows that these tech giants are now conscious that they cannot proceed in an unregulated terrain in countries such as India. They will have to comply with the regulations that will be imposed on them both in their home country as well as in India. In respect of India there is strong sentiment in the ruling establishment that they do so. This was brought home once again when the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha adopted a resolution a few days ago which inter alia stated “All multinational tech companies all the domestic laws in their entirety and must institutionalise the required processes and provisions required by law”.
While India may have the wherewithal to frame regulations and tech companies may find the Indian market lucrative enough that they adhere to them, the fact is that generally the developing world will not be able to take on these companies as this country has done. It simply does not have the expertise or the resources to do so. Is this not reminiscent of the situation in the 18th century when European companies acted with impunity in the East because they possessed superior technology and Eastern political entities did not have the capacity to control them? Indeed, just as there is now a growing desire in the US Congress to control the tech companies which wield inordinate all-round global influence there was a desire in the British parliament to begin regulating the East India Company after it acquired the Dewani of Bengal from the Mughal Emperor in 1765. Through that act the company could begin the attempt to move beyond trade and shape the course of political events in India.
The British governing elite could not let a trading company control the politics even in a distant land without regulation. The US faces a similar situation with these tech companies. In a recent report in the New York Times Kevin Roose observed “Facebook…is still one of the most influential companies in history, with the ability to shape politics and culture all over the globe”. That includes the US too. If the British political elite in the 18th and 19th centuries could not permit the activities of the East India Company go unregulated now two and a half centuries later the US political class can hardly let Facebook and other tech companies in the social networking, communication and media space go completely unregulated. However, just as the British politicians acted in Britain’s interest those of the US will do so too.
What is the basic lesson for India from the global influence of Western tech companies? The West continues to maintain its scientific and technological lead which results in breakthroughs enabling such companies to come up and expand at astonishing speed. Hence, as long as India lags behind in science and technology it will inevitably remain dependent on others in critical areas. That is the bitter truth.