Debates on the growing power and influence of global technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, often referred to as Big Tech, are increasingly polarised.
These companies are celebrated for their innovative products and services which bring tremendous benefits to consumers, businesses, and governments. But, they are also criticised for market monopolisation and undermining democratic processes.
With this report, we seek to find a middle ground - to take a dispassionate view of the impact of Big Tech companies in India and identify policy pathways that can align innovation trajectories with healthy markets, individual freedoms and societal wellbeing.
This becomes even more important with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Emerging evidence suggests that the power and influence of Big Tech companies is likely to increase.
The term ‘Big Tech’ is used to refer to a handful of large, globally significant technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. The term is sometimes used to refer to other large technology companies, such as Microsoft, IBM, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba.
But, we think Big Tech is better understood as a concept, rather than a static set of companies. New companies may enter this category just as existing ones may drop out of it.
As a concept, Big Tech has four key markers:
The collection, analysis and monetisation of data is central to their business models.
They have achieved immense scale quickly through network effects. This insulates them from competition, contributes to their size, and often results in market dominance.
They also provide essential market and informational infrastructure for a digital economy and society.
Through their consumer-facing products and services, that enable essential services like news, commerce and societal interactions, they increasingly play civic functions in society.
Together, these four conceptual markers characterize Big Tech as data-driven, large-scale, consumer-facing technology platforms, that provide market and informational infrastructures for a digital society, and perform essential civic functions. The combination of these features allow Big Tech companies to exert both market and civic power.
Many of the global technology giants associated with the term Big Tech, such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook have a widespread presence in India.
They have developed specific strategies for India, adapting to the needs of Indian markets and consumers.
They provide digital infrastructure, such as wi-fi access and cloud services, for consumers, businesses, and government.
They play a prominent role in the fintech market, an attractive revenue source particularly because of low per user ad revenues in India.
Voice-based and regional language interfaces are offered by Big Tech companies to reach new users and overcome literacy barriers.
New business verticals that bridge existing infrastructural gaps, such as warehousing and delivery, are helping Big Tech companies serve Indian markets better.
Big Tech companies are also investing in tech entrepreneurship and R&D capacity.
Reliance Jio also displays some of the conceptual markers associated with Big Tech. In 2019, Jio became India’s leading carrier in terms of the number of users. Since then, Reliance Jio has been expanding into new business verticals as an umbrella platform for all Reliance owned businesses
Thinking of Big Tech as a concept, rather than a static set of companies, also draws attention to the role of the Indian state as it seeks to use data analytics and digital platforms for governance.
Big Tech poses a wicked problem for public policy, bringing both benefits and harms.
Big Tech companies provide digital infrastructure for other businesses; promote R&D and innovation; and have the capacity to represent industry perspectives in policy discussions.
But they also have certain anti-competitive and monopolistic practices. They are able to use their position as both platform providers and platform participants to privilege their own products and services and enter new product markets. Their interests are also often over-represented in policy discourses.
Most Indian internet users rely on one or more Big Tech platforms to access information, communicate, and participate in political and social life.
But this also gives them inordinate influence in shaping the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech. Through their algorithms which curate and amplify news and information, they wield immense gatekeeping powers. Their platforms also facilitate the spread of misinformation and are prone to politicisation.
Big Tech companies enable access to a wider and personalised range of services. In addition to consumer convenience, such personalised services can allow users to feel visible and empowered.
But the extensive collection of granular data also undermines individual and group privacy, as well as capacities for self-determination.
Big Tech companies augment state capacity through the provision of digital infrastructure, by using data for social good, and enabling the state to communicate with underserved populations.
But the intersecting of Big Tech companies’ interests and State functions raises concerns around democratic accountability and sovereign independence, the health of domestic markets, law enforcement, and equitable taxation.
Addressing wicked problems requires pursuing multiple policy pathways.
Update Competition Policy to include control over data and network effects.
Platform Neutrality, so that Big Tech platforms cannot unfairly discriminate against other businesses using their platform.
Platform Interoperability, to enable consumer choice and reduce the weight of network effects.
Publisher Ethics, so that News and social media platforms are held to the same ethical standards as legacy media.
Algorithmic Accountability, to identify, assess and penalise harmful algorithmic amplification.
Media Literacy, to enable citizens to take more considered decisions
Individual and Collective Rights, for citizens to take decisions about how their data is collected and processed by large tech companies, and hold these companies accountable for misuse.
Data Stewardship Models, that allow individuals to safely share their data with businesses.
Privacy Protecting Business Models that reduce Big Tech companies commercial dependence on processing of personal data.
Build State and Market Capacity, by investing in education, research, entrepreneurship and other kinds of societal capital
Equitable Taxation to ensure that developing countries can gain fair and reasonable tax revenue from Big Tech firms.
Better Cross-border Flows to ensure that transfer of data outside India does not inhibit domestic innovation, law enforcement or other services.
Almost all policy pathways require balancing between competing priorities and interests. Choosing between them is a matter of competing public values, not questions of right or wrong, nor a matter that can be resolved by more evidence alone.
We propose the following normative principles to help steer between competing public values, and guide India’s digital economy and society.
Innovations should prioritize individuals’ agency, material well-being, autonomy, and democracy
Regulation will be required to ensure that innovation is aligned with societal trajectories.
A vibrant public discussion on the role of technology will help navigate the uncertainty that may result from technological innovation.
Technology should protect its users by default to ensure the well-being of each individual, especially vulnerable groups.
Society and communities need to be strengthened to collectively maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of technology.
270 Million is the number of total Facebook users in India. If India’s Facebook audience were a country then it would be ranked fourth in terms of largest population worldwide.
94.5% is Google Android's market share in mobile operating systems market in India. That is, every 94 out of every 100 individuals, own and use an Android based mobile device in India.
400 million average number of total users of Whatsapp in India in any given month. That is roughly 30% of the entire Indian population.
300 million is the total number of transactions on Google Pay in India, in a span of a single year.
Amazon in India has at least 30% market share in e-commerce and more than 5.5 lakh sellers on its platform.
60% of ecommerce market share in India is held by Walmart owned Flipkart.
200 million people in India actively use TikTok every month, with most users in the age group of 18-35 years.
An average user in India, spends 44 minutes on Facebook, 34 minutes on TikTok and 23.8 minutes on Instagram, each day. That is, 670 hours on Facebook, 517 hours on TikTok, and 362 hours on Instagram in a year. A year has 8760 hours.