From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : NA
Mains level : Digital gateways, market dominance of big tech and government regulations
- The ease of living enabled by digital technologies has turned digital innovations into essential services for the common public. Considered a novelty earlier, the internet has become a necessity for most day-to-day affairs.
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Internet access and restrictions
- To enable access to the internet, various gateways have come up in the last few decades in the form of telecom service providers, personal computers and smartphones, operating systems, etc.
- However, when these gateways enable and restrict access to other gateways or networks, the openness of the internet is threatened.
- They then shift roles from being a facilitator to a regulator, from being a gateway to a gatekeeper. Hence, the need for a code of conduct or regulation arises to keep the playing field level and accessible to all.
Analysis: Telecoms and Government
- Telecom service providers: Telecom companies have been instrumental in providing a gateway to essential communication services such as voice calls, internet data, and text messages.
- Government measures to regulate telecoms: We have seen governments across the world take measures from time to time to regulate these entities to ensure democratic access for the public. If this code of conduct was not enforced on these gateway providers, the internet would not be what it is today. These providers would have turned into gatekeepers, and the internet would have been controlled by them, thwarting innovation and its democratic expansion.
- Code of conduct cannot catch up the pace of emerging digital tech: With the rate at which digital technologies are evolving, the code of conduct and regulations can’t catch up with the new gateway providers that are emerging. One such example is distribution platforms for smartphone applications.
- Benchmarks set by bigtechs helps to bring some hygiene in smartphone apps: The two prominent operating systems emerging for smartphones, Google and Apple, enjoy a lion’s share of the app store market. They brought in good practices to ensure basic hygiene for smartphone applications, maintained quality benchmarks for the content on their operating systems, and safeguarded the interests of their users.
- Lack of full proof regulation would be a slippery slope: Though, without proper regulations to oversee how they decide on what should be weeded and whose interests should be guarded, it’s a slippery slope.
Policy on Net Neutrality put forwarded by Indian Government
- Enforcing a code of conduct on telecoms: Closer home, another example of the enforcement of this code of conduct on providers was when the Indian government came out with the policy on Net Neutrality which, inter-alia, stipulates that telecom networks should be neutral to all the information being transmitted through it.
- Meaning of Net Neutrality: Networks should treat all communication passing through them equally, independent of their content, application, service, device, sender, or recipient address. Adopting Net Neutrality ensured that we took a democratic stance against Big Tech.
Questionable practices of distribution platforms
- Practices without consent of its users: Various practices range from restrictions on payment gateways, advertising choices, app policies and various other aspects of an application or business that could be considered discriminatory in both principle and practice.
- For instance, a case of Goggle’s Update: Recently a report placed before the Competition Commission of India found Google Play Store’s payments policy “unfair and discriminatory”. As per an update in Google’s Play Store billing policy in September 2020, all applications on its platform were mandated to use its payment services for any kind of in-app payments or subscriptions.
- Similar case of Apple’s appstore: Similar concerns have been raised for Apple’s App Store, with both platforms said to be charging up to 30 per cent commission on payments processed.
- Market dominance and unilateral control over smartphone apps by the bigtechs: Google and Apple dominate the global market share of smartphone operating systems (OS). This has enabled them to garner unilateral control over the publishing of smartphone applications on their OS.
- Developers are forced to bend to the diktats of these bigtech gatekeepers: Bigtechs force developers to make changes to their applications or resort to using their proprietary advertising engines if they wish their applications to see the light of day. As is evident from the overnight change in Google’s billing policy, various smartphone application-dependent businesses and developers continue to remain vulnerable to such internal business policy changes on these platforms.
European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) sets an example
- Recognising these concerns: The European Union has recently enacted the Digital Markets Act; it is expected to be implemented by early 2023.
- Aims to keep digimarket open for competition: The Digital Markets Act regulation aims to keep digital markets innovative and open to competition, through ex-ante regulation.
- Prohibit anti-competitive practices: The DMA will prohibit the implementation of the most harmful anti-competitive practices by the largest digital platforms.
- Objective is to maintain balance: The objective is to balance the relationship between these platforms that control access to digital markets and the companies that offer their services there.
- The Indian government has taken a huge leap forward in maintaining its sovereignty through the path-breaking and disruptive digital public goods it has created. Aadhaar, UPI, DigiLocker, and CoWIN are just a few names that adorn this list. However, there is still a wide dependence on various digital offerings enabled by multinational Big Tech companies. It is the need of the hour for the government to devise appropriate regulations to ensure a level playing field and not let the innovating gateways turn into tyrannical gatekeepers.
Q. India is the largest consumer of wireless internet. Analyze the role of big tech service providers in this and the role of government in ensuring a level playing field for all.
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