ZOOM APP BANNING – WHERE DOES INDIA STAND

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Recently GoI has taken the decision to ban the ZOOM platform for all govt video conferencing work. Not only this, but GOI has also invited bids to develop an indigenous app for video conferencing. Now the question arises, why such urgency at the time of corona. Corporates, governments all across the world have been using ZOOM. It has become a multi-billion dollar platform.

The reason for govt urgency lies in the reports that it’s a front of CCP, & all its passwords were leaked & sold on darknets. Thus access to such a treasure trove of information gives a great advantage to CCP. IT has all the corporate, military, political intelligence, which can be used to knock down an adversary or to force a nation to fall in line.

HISTORICAL ROLES OF PLATFORMS IN EMPIRE BUILDING

The use of platforms and pathways to augment economic, political & military interests is not new to mankind. In fact, India has used this since ancient times.  Silk route, if one can remember, a major portion of it would run through India, used to be a major source of income for ancient kingdoms. Indian Ports were used to connect the middle east, Europe.  Similarly, in the colonial age, the ports played an important role in furthering the interests of European powers. The history of colonialism in from 17th century onwards is the story of ports or platform domination. The Europeans held sway over waterways & ports, which would give them immense control and power to guide the destiny of  Asian& African nations.

As & when interests between colonial powers & native kings clashed, they made full use of ports to economically strangulate natives. A case in point is the Opium war in China. European powers, with their dominance oversea, devastated china and secured both economic & political rights. In the case of India, Britishers fought the battle of Plassey in 1757 to secure special trade & commerce rights vis a’ vis natives.  Within a span of 100 years of Plassey battle, India became a colony of British.

IMPORTANCE OF PLATFORMS IN 21st CENTURY

Now we fast forward to 21 century. An era of globalization, pinnacle of individualism,  free flow of human, information with shiny skyscrapers & whatnot. Twitter, Facebook, Google, providing information, strengthening democracy empowering individuals.  Amazon is facilitating commerce, providing employment to youth.  All looks very rosy. Nothing can go wrong. However, human greed is a very powerful motive. Now imagine a scenario in an emerging nation like India. The govt of the day decides to protect local mom & POP stores, strengthens the regulation for local procurement. This sound policy for employment generation infuriates the modern-day East India company, that it makes a large hue &cry. Just like 19th-century European countries ganging up against China,  modern era nation corporates twitter, Facebook, Google join hands and launch a blitzkrieg against govt of the day. Reports varying from threat to free trade, corruption in govt, to increasing communalism started pouring in. This, coupled with international criticism, the threat of taking matters to WTO started coming in. At last, govt gives in like MIR ZAFAR of Bengal gave in. There is a negotiation between corporate giants and govt,&govt gives in. This looks like two & half-century repeating in except the fact that GOI of India did not give in and forced Amazon to trade in accordance with Indian laws.

The whole point to weave a story is just to bring into perspective that India faces a grave threat to its political,-economic military sovereignty from tech colonialism. When the internet was taking off India in the 90s, Google started offering Gmail, search engines to help people in accessing information. Similarly, Twitter called itself a free media platform to allow free flow information. It even promised to break barriers of free speech. Similar was the case with Facebook while Amazon claimed to facilitate e-commerce.

However, as they say, there is nothing free & everything comes with a price. Facebook has generated billions in revenue by sharing & storing private data of Indians. Similarly, Amazon, through its deep discounts, has ensured that local mom & Pop stores go out of business. These are just a threat to the economy.

 POLITICAL THREATS BY FOREIGN TECH PLATFORMS

Twitter is both a platform and a medium of news views dissemination. However, there have been accusations against it of being biased against republicans & silencing their voice while allowing Islamists leftists to go Scott free. It may happen tomorrow when twitter to augment its share & to defeat a particular party starts disseminating fake news. This has happened in the US wherein Fake ads were generated against political rivals. Thus tech platforms can simply turn around the result of an election. Besides this, a country overtly dependent on foreign platforms is vulnerable to blackmail. Many Indian politicians use email facebook twitter whats app freely &  exchange sensitive information. As most tech platforms are US based, hence they store their information there. US NSA keeps an all-powerful eye on them. So it may happen that an accidental leak before an important election happens to malign the image of a party or its leaders. This has happened with Amazon’s founder whose account was hacked & sensitive information was subsequently leaked. 

A major emerging concern is that of cyber warfare & India has been its victim time & again. Recently the twitter handle of Pakistani army posing as Omani princess attacked so-called anti minoritism in India. This led to a series of attacks on Indians working in gulf & led to a diplomatic row. Thus livelihoods of Indians living abroad come under threat due to imposter working freely on twitter.

WHY INDIA HAS NOT BEEN ABLE TO DEVELOP OWN PLATFORMS

Now there is a million-dollar question, how to make India a tech superpower, how to ensure that India doesn’t miss this bus again. As per a recent report, None of the Indian apps is in the top 10 most valuable apps. China and the US dominate there. However, it’s not hard to fathom why Indian apps do not feature in the list. The answer lies in the networking effect. When an application has a large number of people, it builds a network & the benefits of being inside network outweighs being outside it. So Face book, What’s app have a head start over their Indian counterparts & Even if Indians develop,  they remain laggard. However, this network effect can be broken with coercion &Govt will & there have been success stories of It in India. RUPAY, BHIM, AADHAR, GEM are Indian platforms which have successfully created a niche for themselves.

Govt support is necessary to successfully develop and build a platform in India. China, by adopting the same strategy, has been able to build Weibo, Didi, thus threw western tech platforms out of business. Indian govt can easily build a homegrown twitter or Facebook. Narendra Modi is the most followed leader of the world. If he, along with BJP leaders, switches to an Indian platform from day one, it will have millions hit. Similarly, Indian facebook or Indian amazon will largely benefit Indians.

The additional advantage will be revenue generation from the monetisation of data. India loses this revenue to Facebook, twitter every day. Govt will get a disproportionate return.

Besides govt will be to safeguard Indians living & working abroad as these will be Indian platforms so they can be denied to hostile countries like Pakistan & China. Govt can also keep surveillance over rogue citizens. Currently, it faces a lot of difficulty with twitter&facebook.

If indigenous platforms are so beneficial, why no one has given any thought to them, the answer to that question is complicated. It varies from lobbying by vested interests to lack of ability to understand tech challenge to sabotage from within.

Many senior bureaucrats are generalists & lack the ability to comprehend this tech threat. Its no surprise there are many government official groups where people conduct their official business on whats app. Many GOI officers use Gmail in their regular communication without knowing it that it endangers the nation’s safety.

Besides this, there is sabotage from within. Children of many Bureaucrats are working in MNCs, drawing a fat salary, involved in intense lobbying with GOI. This itself leads to policy inertia and zeal to develop Indian tech platform.

WAY FORWARD

The solution to this is very simple. GOI of INDIA should organize a mega tech competition to build Indian twitter, Facebook, Uber, etc. They should be supported to the hilt by the government. A PSU can be formed with 51% government ownership while management remains in the hands of the private sector. This will allow govt to have control while giving much-needed autonomy to innovate. Such newly built tech platforms will soon bring India back into the great game.

However, naysayers will keep asking, “won’t this be against free trade,” “what about surveillance by the govt& my privacy blah blah.” These questions are valid, but they look more protests by hypocrites. First, of, we need to understand there is nothing like free trade in the world. European nations, the USA during the colonial era, misused their dominant position to loot the wealth of Asian & African nations & never allowed Asian nations to export freely. Even if we consider it to be a thing of a bygone era, Today’s tech platforms GAFA (GOOGLE, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) are all monopolies in their area. They don’t allow others to grow. Case in point is what’s an app, which was bought by Facebook for a whopping 19 billion$. So the talk of free trade, the free market is nothing but bunkum. To safeguard its interests the government will have to go for coercion and put control over others. In the past, GoI had done it when it launched RUPAY, which broke the duopoly of VISA &Mastercard. Govt. supported RuPay to the hilt in the JHAN DHAN Yojana.  This has brought prices of services offered by these gateways down. Today RuPay commands a majority market share in India.  Master Card was so much jealous of RuPay’s success that it rushed to UNCLE SAM. However, the Indian tiger stood his ground.

The concern over safeguarding privacy and surveillance is a genuine one but driven more by opposition to govt than safeguarding ideals. Many eminent voices had qualms in depositing their data to  US-based companies working under US laws. Not a finger was raised when Snowden exposed shoddy dealings of US NSA.  But when GOI wants to launch its own tech platforms or calls for securing data in  India it all hell lose break. This is nothing but sheer hypocrisy. However, that should not stop us from having privacy-related safeguards in these platforms. A suitable law can be formed, incorporating all suggestions which strike a balance between individual liberty & national sovereignty.

The whole point is Western countries & China are quite aware of the potential of the tech Platform. Hence they have developed & are selling their products all over the world. India, on the other hand, has remained a laggard.  India needs to get its act together fast if it does not want to be a tech colony of the west. If not now, then it will never be. Or As they say, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years back, second best is now. Missing the tech platform bus will cause India very dearly.

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