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Big tech: Destroyers of privacy scurry for cover

BusinessBig tech: Destroyers of privacy scurry for cover

‘Finding the origin of hate messages is a welcome step. This will not impact privacy between two persons and requires the algorithm to trace the creator of the message’.

After the strong General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) established by the European Union (EU), India is perhaps the next big democracy which has attempted to tame big tech with strong regulations.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 aim to control the unfettered freedom of social media and digital tech giants.
Companies like Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter have an obligation to take down unlawful content, identify originators of offensive content, enhance verification of users and set up grievance mechanisms? Is that too much to ask?
Governments have a duty to protect the interests of its citizens. Decisions with regard to privacy and societal health can’t be left to executives of tech companies. Such companies work in opaque and often dictatorial manner. When Twitter, Google and Facebook came together to ban President Donald Trump, there was none of the public consultation or transparency that is being demanded by them in India.
After the Trump banning incident, French President Emmanuel Macron sharply rebuked these companies and said, “I don’t want to live in a democracy where the key decisions… is decided by a private player, a private social network. I want it to be decided by a law voted by your representative, or by regulation, governance, democratically discussed and approved by democratic leaders.”
This is exactly what the Government of India has done. Enacted rules where elected representatives of the people will decide what is good for the society and the economy.
A major criticism of the new Indian rules is that messaging privacy will be compromised. The defenders of Facebook and WhatsApp say that they will have to dilute privacy and encryption in messages to comply with the originator of message rule. This seems to be stretching the truth. Identifying the originator of fake news doesn’t have to undermine the privacy between two persons messaging each other. All it requires is for their algorithm to trace the creator of the message. Finding the origin of hate messages is a welcome step. This will not impact privacy between two persons. It is only meant to create a deterrent against those who hide behind anonymity to start fake news. The irony is of course that the defenders of Facebook, Google etc. raising fears of privacy breach when they themselves have been the biggest culprits.
Have these companies respected privacy of their users? Did they take informed permission from users before selling their personal data for commercial gains? The hypocrisy is staggering.
These companies were dragged kicking and screaming by EU and bound by strong privacy rules. According to EU, “GDPR is the toughest privacy and security law in the world. It imposes obligations onto organizations anywhere, so long as they target or collect data related to people in the EU. The regulation was put into effect on May 25, 2018. The GDPR will levy harsh fines against those who violate its privacy and security standards, with penalties reaching into the tens of millions of euros.”
The big tech companies follow the rules enacted in EU now, but refuse to apply the same standards in other countries. Instead of raising their own standard of data protection and privacy rules, they are making efforts to prevent other countries from enacting tough rules.
The companies which shredded all concepts of privacy; misused and abused personal data; and became conduits of fake news are now attempting to stop regulation in India by raising concerns of privacy and transparency. The rules made in India have been done with relevant checks, balances and accountability which these companies have never embraced fully.
A global coalition of governments and regulators against big tech is emerging now. Prime Ministers of India and Australia—Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison—discussed tech regulation on a call recently. Such conversations and coordination will impact emerging and developed economies equally.
Most countries will look towards EU, India, Australia and US to take on the might of the tech giants. Since the user base is bigger than the population of any country, Facebook and Google feel they are above local regulation and control. If any country tries to control them, they raise the bogey of government censorship.
It is time that big tech was brought to its knees under a set of global rules. There is precedence for such collaboration. Multilateral agencies and governments came together to curb the flow of illegal and terror funds; clamped down on tax havens; and forced transnational companies to declare beneficial ownership.
The OECD initiative of Base Erosion and Profit Shifting rules are forcing MNCs to pay taxes in the economies where they operate. Similarly Place of Effective Management (POEM) rules force global companies to declare the location and establishment of senior management.
In the case of big tech companies, regulators must connect issues of privacy and with monopolistic behavior. While digital companies would like regulators to deal with each issue separately, it makes sense for the regulators across the world to take a comprehensive view of how big tech companies operate. And why not. If Facebook can share its users’ information across all its platforms in a cohesive way and Google combines information about its users across its various services, there is no reason for regulators to ignore the cumulative impact of their size on society and economy. Hopefully more countries will follow the regulatory examples being set by India, EU and Australia.
Pranjal Sharma is the author of India Automated.

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