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The Era of Big Tech monopoly: Is India prepared for the Big Tech reign?

By Subhadeepa Sen, Student at Christ University, Bangalore

“If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.[1]

Introduction

The world is witnessing the rapid digitalization that is taking place and it is remarkable to observe how tech-savvy people have become. Moreover, owing to the global pandemic, the dependence on technology has further been accelerated. The apps have made things possible just with a click of a mouse. Even the pandemic has not deterred us from carrying out everyday activities from the ease of our homes. The techno-giants have indeed been the drivers of the global economy. However, owing to this increase in the usage and dependence on such applications, the Big Tech has been deeply benefitted and has now amassed vast colossal powers and it is a source of concern for various reasons. The power wielded by such Big Tech has increasingly led to exploitation of the consumers and in a similar vein, the competitors. The data given by the users can be considered an ‘oil’ that is wielded by them in order to drive their monopolising tactics which has adverse effects on the market. The dissemination of misinformation and the erosion of the user’s privacy being the obvious by-products of the same.

The app-driven decade has maneuvered technology in such a way that apps are now a part of every aspect of an individual’s life starting from banking to shopping and from travel to health. Technology is now intertwined with lifestyle. In such circumstances, it is noteworthy to observe how certain Big Tech have outdone the rest. Facebook tops the list according to a report published by AppAnnie, an analytics and mobile market data firm. It mentioned that the top five apps in terms of most downloads in the world were (starting from the most downloaded) Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat. It can be seen how the top four are now owned solely by Facebook. Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon also constitute the top competitors, all of whom have successfully managed to curate monopolies within different markets. In the pursuit of providing convenience and innovation to the consumers, the Big Tech has efficaciously carved out a niche for themselves in their respective digital spheres by what can be termed as – “techopoly”.

The Current conundrum vis-à-vis Big Tech

It is evident that the persistent dominance of Big Tech has led to an increase in the concentration of manipulative user data within such big tech companies. This is indicative from the infamous episode of Cambridge Analytica wherein it was alleged that the company had used the personal data of 50 million Facebook members, and because of which Facebook had garnered a considerable amount of bad press in the past couple of years. Recently, the Big Tech CEOs were called upon to testify to the US House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee and they were questioned on their business models and their platform’s tactics. Facebook and Amazon were questioned on their incessant acquisition of start-ups and thus, reducing the potential ambit of competitors. A number of companies said that Apple and Google throttle their ability to compete by compelling the competitors to pay high commissions. In India, it was recently seen that even Dominos enlisted itself on the list of corporate data breaches. It was alleged that Domino’s customer data including credit card details were leaked online. Another incident that is indicative of the vast amount of power that these tech giants hold is when Facebook and Twitter had blocked Donald Trump’s account. These mega-corporations especially, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc., tend to use a technique called – Transaction Hijacking. Transaction-hijacking is a process wherein a platform may sense that a purchase is imminent and leap with an offer from a competitor offering more favorable terms.[2] To elucidate this, it means that the advertisers want to get themselves advertised on the social media platforms due to their vast reach and hence, are ready to spend some bucks for the same. This becomes a very good opportunity for these platforms to earn a good amount of money. These platforms, “tap user data, their buying preferences, their health status, their user history and what not, to tap the current need of a particular user and then supply this ‘private’ data to the advertisers who are targeting customers of the sort” in the veil of Artificial Intelligence.

These instances simply indicate that these techno-giants have now ushered in their reign. Even though the benefits rendered by the advancement of the digital economy are manifold but it is also requisite that, its grey areas should also be carefully scrutinized so that costs do not outnumber their benefits. It is not hidden that these techno-giants have indeed provided us greater access to innovative products and have been helpful in developing new ways in which commerce can be conducted but with it comes the bottlenecks which have a tendency to restrict competition and thereby reducing options for the consumers. It tends to create an environment of absolute monopoly where the new entrants stand no chance to access the E-commerce market.

An International Perspective

Globally, different governments have given different responses to show their concern regarding this emerging era of Big Tech monopoly and have been relentlessly trying to find ways that can actually restrict the unabated powers of such companies. It is interesting to note that these countries have presented a veritable spectrum of reasons as to what led to their collective resentment towards the tactics of these techno-giants. For instance, the primary concerns for the United States and Europe are that these Big Techs are stifling competition, spreading misinformation, and eroding privacy, however, Russia and certain other governments have cited that it is to “silence” protest and political movements. In another instance, it can be observed that Australia too has passed a law to enable Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news and Britain has decided on setting up its own tech regulator in order to police the industry. FurthermoreMyanmar and Cambodia have also put broad internet restrictions in place and India too has adopted new powers over social media. Hence, various stances have been taken by different countries of the world in order to tackle the situation.

Recently, David Cecilline, the Chairman of the Antitrust Committee had also said that “This is a monopoly moment. Not just for the United States but for the entire world.” Furthermore, Sen. Josh Hawley, one of United States’ leading Constitutional lawyers, had also tweeted that, “Monopoly and liberty don’t go together. No corporation should be so big and so powerful that it can override the voice of the people. We need a new trust-busting agenda, from MLB to #BigTech.” Sen. Josh Hawley has vehemently opposed the abuses of these mega-corporations. Furthermore, Hawley had also mentioned a Bill to “bust-up” the Big Tech to be titled the “Bust Up Big Tech Act” shall be introduced in order to target such megacorporations by restricting them to run an online marketplace and at the same time selling goods on that marketplace. The Bust Up Big Tech Act highlighted two important things which it would ensure if enacted. Firstly, it will “prevent Amazon from selling Amazon-branded goods on Amazon Marketplace, where its rivals also trade, and secondly, it shall also prohibit Amazon from controlling a significant portion of the cloud computing services that many online businesses rely on while continuing to operate its ubiquitous retail business”.

India’s legal position amidst the emerging Techopoly

Several instances indicate that India’s market size serves as an attractive destination for Big Tech as they venture into their Tech-monopoly by capitalizing on such E-commerce markets. This makes it imperative that India undertakes some ex-ante measures and enact stringent regulations before these mega-corporations become amassed with huge power and influence in the country. There have been allegations against mega-corporations like Google, stating that it exploits its market position and promotes its mobile payments app in an unfair manner. The complaint claimed that it displays “its Google Pay app inside its Android app store in India, giving it an unfair advantage over apps of competitors which hurts consumers.” This has hence, led the Competition Commission of India to conduct a probe into the allegations made with respect to the “anti-competitive” practices in the Indian diaspora. The US and EU have been contemplating ways to regulate the Big Techs’ predatory market behavior. The United States tends to be at the forefront of this effort, with Congress seeking sweeping remedies to prevent further harm to competitors, customers, and democracy itself. This would naturally have an impact on the Indian landscape and others wherein these mega-corporations also operate.

The road ahead for India

However, not much has been done to address these antitrust concerns in the country despite it being one of the most sought-after destinations due to its considerable market size. Moreover, local monopolies also constitute another cause of perturbation for India. According to a recent Mint report, a dominant firm controls over 70% of all revenues in one-sixth of the country’s business sectors. Considering the far-reaching impact that these Big Tech have which influence almost every aspect of an individual’s life, a proactive regulatory stance must be undertaken that will ensure a sound competitive landscape for all. Comprehensive legislation needs to be curated which will be rendered by a culmination of different regulatory bodies dealing with the same. On all of this, India must aggressively demonstrate its leadership, ensuring that it is at the forefront, alongside the EU and the US, in ensuring better data security, accountability, and maintaining healthy competition. It is time that India steps up its game and implements an efficacious regulatory mechanism and proposes some progressive anti-trust approaches that can dwindle the power these Big Tech hold while they are still in their incipient stage in India. Hence, novel ideas that enable more transparency and fewer discrepancies in a healthy E-commerce market are the dire need as we enter the epoch of Tech-Monopoly.

References

[1] Sherman Anti-trust Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1-38 (1890).

[2] Brian Kane, Balancing Anonymity, Popularity and Micro-Celebrity: The Crossroads of Social Networking and Privacy, 20 ALB. L.J. SCI. & TECH. 327, 339 (2010).

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