By Siddharth Gulati
Disclaimer: The following article is reflective of the views of the author only.
Beep beep beep. It’s 7:30 in the morning and you turn to your bedside table to reach out to your flashy new iPhone to switch off the annoying alarm. Then the daily morning rituals of checking your WhatsApp messages, viewing Instagram stories and of course listening to your favourite playlist while you shower, ensues. Sometimes you might choose to exercise and track your calories burned on the Nike app. You read the newspaper on your phone as you eat your breakfast in a hurry, or forget to eat it as you are running late. You then proceed to book a cab on Uber. The cab ride allows you to check the prices of the brand new Adidas shoes on Amazon that you want to buy for the next week’s party, check out trending events on Facebook and Instagram and reply to all your emails. It’s 9 a.m., and you finally reach your destination.
While this might seem to be the morning routine of a normal person, you have unwittingly shared everything you did over the past few hours, with some of the world’s most powerful corporations: Apple, Google, Uber, Amazon, and Facebook – the ‘data dalals’. They track your shopping, define your purchasing power, and basically strip you of any privacy.
Despite these MNCs’ diverse product offerings and unique value propositions, they all have one thing in common – they failed in the world’s biggest market – China. Uber was left red-faced and sold off its Chinese subsidiary to Didi Chuxing. Facebook was forced to shut down its operations, after posts publicizing the Xinjiang Independence movement were shared on the platform. Google was coerced into leaving the country, as it couldn’t navigate around the Government’s infamous internet censorship policies. Amazon couldn’t put its finger on the pulse of the market as well as the indigenous giant, Alibaba, could. In order to counter the problem of saturating demand back home, these conglomerates had to pursue growth strategies outside of Western countries. Thus, they turned to India, a free market with speedy economic growth, internet expansion and a colonial hangover that made it much more appreciative and trusting of all things Western. If data is the new oil, then these companies could become the next OPEC (which will be equivalent to an apocalyptic end to privacy and free speech).
Companies can monetize data: Facebook can track the activity of its users in a region and can sell this to an FMCG. Besides this, the social-media giant can use past data to improve its key source of revenue – advertising. It does this by allowing companies to have personalized advertising services, thus enabling very effective market segmentation. Apple can collect your medical status from your morning jogs, and sell it to pharmaceutical majors, under the illusory notion of personalizing your exercise experience. Uber knows the most frequented restaurants and bars in town, which it can then sell to food chains, in order to let them get a sense of the competition. Amazon has a goldmine of data on consumer spending habits, and business revenue, which it can sell to practically anyone. With advancements in the field of Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, data will become much easier to collect and process. The most dangerous aspect is not that a considerable portion of our country’s big data is in the hands of a foreign entity, but rather the fact that they have much more advanced systems to make better use of this than indigenous startups. Moreover, we can’t predict whether they will use this for good, or for possible iniquitous motives. Thus, these tech giants are always involved in a hidden battle to collect your data and control your world. The fact that they know how Indian consumers think and make decisions, draws frightening parallels with an Orwellian future.
Moreover, the lack of funding and customer coverage has closed down many so called desi startups. It has now come down to a duopolistic situation in most tech spaces, pitting an indigenous entity with a foreign behemoth (Amazon vs Flipkart, Ola vs Uber, Bhim vs GooglePay), with seeming monopolies when it comes to search engines (Google has a mind-blowing 98% market share) and social media sites (Facebook has 250 million Indian users). Besides this, recent examples of Amazon venturing into the foods and private label business, Uber into logistics and food, and Facebook into the mobile payments business, showcase a big threat to other B2C (business-to-consumer) firms. It’s only a matter of time before the former turns into the latter, and darkness falls over Startup India. Similar to the British Raj, where the handloom industry was destroyed, our startup space is being broken down, under the guise of ‘free markets’, while our government with weak IT laws watches with its ‘hands tied behind its back’, and oblivious Indian consumers continue to prefer foreign products (over false better quality notions).
In my opinion, the role of foreign technology companies should be that of an incubator on a larger level. All of these big enterprises should be mandated to hold quarterly startup accelerator programs, for local firms. Moreover, regulatory bodies need to keep a closer watch on them, and antitrust laws should be placed to prevent them from acquiring competitors and creating a monopoly setup. Besides this, these companies should adopt the ‘blockchain’ method of storing data, which will not only allow customers to know where their data is being used but also lower the chances of a data breach.
As the clichéd ‘kings’ in this marketplace, be careful where you spend your next rupee, it might be fueling your own colonization as nothing in this world, even your emotions, are private.