Data Colonisation, Data Monopolies, and what can be done.
A few weeks ago, Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian, and the Chairman of Reliance Industries, spoke about something that has been, hitherto, the province of academics, and the left. He called for an end to data colonisation by large foreign MNC’s who collect, churn, and harvest our data, to make great profits. Like the dialog on cultural colonisation 40 years ago, this debate divides the world into the “south’ that provides the data, and the “north’ that exploits the data and makes humongous profits. What activists talk about is the fact that the new form of capitalism that pervades the world, and that involves the appropriation of personal data by the large corporations. Just as the East India Company – and other such corporations – appropriated natural wealth and the fruits of labour, to earn huge profits, modern day digital corporations are appropriating our data and our participation to do the same. The question is what can be done about it
At the core of the issues, is the infrastructure of connectivity that is put up by large digital corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber. And it is this infrastructure that allows corporations to have an almost monopolistic control over lives. Facebook, for example, has more members than any nation has citizens. Add Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook messenger to the mix -and you have one giant corporation exerting a tremendous influence on people’s lives. The same is the case with the rest. Matthew Hindman, in his book “The Internet Trap: How the Digital Economy builds Monopolies and undermines Democracy” makes a compelling argument on how the power of this infrastructure, in effect, acts as a barrier to entry, allows for predatory practises, and has the overall impact of reducing choice, and impacting our societies. According to Hindman, the four largest sites – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo – account for over 33% of all web visits. Furthermore, according to Hindman, as of 2016, Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all advertising on digital platforms – a duopoly that is built on the back of our data. In giving their platform services away free, the corporations have ensured that we become the product that they package and sell.
With the Supreme Court of India declaring “The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution” there are going to be major challenges to the digital corporation. At one end there is the Draft Data Protection Bill submitted by the Justice Srikrishna Committee to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) that looks at our data being stored outside India. At the other is companies like Facebook wanting to bypass end-to-end encryption on Whatsapp primarily to harvest data.
So, while at one level the question is where the data is to be held and by whom, the second equally valid question is who benefits from all this data. Right now the answer to the second question is the corporations. However, if you look at these platforms, they have been built by the power of the network. A network of discrete individuals who populate these platforms, and use their labour to create, curate, and share – that enables the corporations to take advantage of the network effect and grow. SO the question is simple, do we get paid for our labour? One of the reasons why Google and Facebook are able to make so much in profits, and why they are a duopoly, is because a large part of the labour that goes into making their networks better, safer, and more compelling, is not paid for.
Moving data stores to India may allow the Indian government and the Indian citizen to have more control on the data, but that does not solve the problem of free labour, and how it contributes to inflated profits, and extraordinary influence in the spheres of Government, business, and society. The way to redress that is to look at paying each member of the digital networks a fee for using the data that is used. It is this act of the corporation paying for the data that is exploited that will move the current system away from data colonisation to data egalitarianism.