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If MNCs make early inroads, they will keep market share: Sunil Abraham, CIS

by Prasad Krishna last modified Oct 24, 2014 03:03 PM
The recent visits of the high-profile CEOs of internet/technology companies have made it clear that India, with its 200-million internet users, is increasingly becoming important for the multinational corporations (MNCs).

The article by J. Anand was published in the Financial Express on October 23, 2014. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

The recent visits of the high-profile CEOs of internet/technology companies have made it clear that India, with its 200-million internet users, is increasingly becoming important for the multinational corporations (MNCs). Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) is a bit skeptical and feels some of these companies are trying to influence the internet policy-making of the country. Sunil Abraham, executive director of CIS, talks to FE’s Anand J regarding the government’s use of social media, the regulations and the plan for a Digital India. Edited excerpts:

We see a heightened interest in India from technology/internet companies, with their top CEOs visiting the country. What do you think is the reason?

In India, with little domestic competition, if these companies make early inroads, they will be able to keep the market share. The other reason is, the Indian government has made several proposals such as data localisation, mandatory data routing and so on, which have been demonised by the West as something that will balkanise the internet. Because India represents a big market, companies might be indulging in some amount of tokenism in the form of data centres. This is to show the government that they are willing to listen and lead the conversation to an agenda item that they are comfortable with and block some of the more dramatic proposals. The third reason could be that internet penetration might grow dramatically in the country and if the policy levers are moved appropriately, it will grow even more.

What is your stand on the government proposals?

In some ways, I agree with MNCs that some of the government proposals could break the architecture of internet. But then there are other proposals that are completely kosher. The domestic routing of an email if it travels within India is good as it will be difficult for the NSA to intercept then. From an internet design perspective, more fibre is good.

Data localisation though will result in balkanisation and might not yield desirable results. For instance, if you are watching a YouTube video, all the information about the user is stored by Google and all of that is stored outside the country. They might store some of this information as cache in a Google server temporarily. From a surveillance perspective, this user data called metadata is what the NSA might want. Even when it is collected in a local server, it might still be sent upstream.

What about the Indian government doing surveillance then?

There are different views on the surveillance capabilities of the Indian government. Some think that today the Indian government has the capability of engaging in mass surveillance. Others like me think that it can only do targeted surveillance and not mass surveillance. It does not have the infrastructure to pull that off and if it is doing targeted surveillance, it is mostly in compliance with the local laws.

Is the increasing use of social media by the government for its communication with citizens a concern?

If the government uses this private infrastructure to communicate with its citizens, there could be a variety of challenges and complications. First, all of these government communications must be mirrored on the government infrastructure as well. Otherwise, there is a concern around data retention. The government needs to have a copy in case a person goes to RTI for all the government communications to citizens. Secondly, the government is unwittingly becoming the salesperson for these global corporations.

Mark Zuckerberg has said that internet is a human right. Do you agree?

Internet is not a human right according to the UN. TV and Radio were never rights. All the basic human rights are to be protected irrespective of the communication medium of choice and will be legitimate even 100 years from now. The success of telecommunication and internet is market generated. If it becomes a human right, the companies are not delivering a service, but a human right and this complicates the issue. There will be new demands from citizens and litigations by citizens. If everybody demands 1GB every month, state does not have those resources.

India is a phone internet market. Indian internet is tied to Google now. Does the Android dominance — with a market share of around 90% — concern you?

It is hugely worrisome and yet another monopoly. It is not “free” software. From a privacy and national security perspective, it is a terrible development. Considering that it is based on Linux, there should have been several national and international competitors.

Has the era of hetergeneous internet with a million websites passed?

Internet is no longer decentralised; 80% of users’ time is now spent on a few products. And anywhere on internet, ad networks are tracking you. We ended up with the world’s biggest surveillance machine and surveillance is the business model of internet. It is very difficult to change this as we face the inertia of user behaviour.

What do you think of the government’s Digital India plan?

The government can use the billions from the Universal Service Obligation fund for broadband connectivity. The markets cannot handle back haul infrastructure and in most countries, some amount of state investment is necessary. Some of the open access details have to be worked out. The government seems to have a monopoly position in execution. We agree with the vision that every Indian should have a smartphone by 2019 and have a broadband connection too.

What are the regulations you want to see in place in India?

Internet users are currently overregulated with restrictions on what you can say. Let what is illegal offline be illegal online too. And government needs to think of enforceability.

The regulatory infrastructure for the government is limited. We want powerful companies to be regulated and follow global norms. The regulatory best practices are emerging from Europe in terms of competition, privacy, data protection, etc, and we need to follow them.

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