Season 1, Episode 4

While China’s largest neighbor India is expected to overtake China by population within only a few years, it is struggling in most other areas to compete with the other giant emerging country. The recent border clashes only led the already complicated relations to deteriorate. As for most countries, India will have to balance furthering its economic potential –that it will not achieve without China –and opposing a China led region by offering other countries opportunities to collaborate. (30 min., 54 sec.)

Your host: Nico Luchsinger, Executive Director, Asia Society Switzerland Moderator: Nico LuchsingerSpeakers:Tanvi Madan, Director and Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and author Production: Serena Jung, Program and Communications Director, Asia Society Switzerl and Editing: Denise Staubli, Program Manager, Asia Society Switzerland

Research, Writing

Big Tech and the State: The necessity of regulating tech giants

The scramble for gold on the Internet has transferred control of vast swathes of cyberspace to a very small and select group: Big Tech. This has made ‘significant social media intermediaries’ highly profitable ad businesses that have grown amid non-existent privacy and weak intermediary liability laws. They make the market, grow the market, and shape market rules. No ad business, or any business in history—not even Big Oil or Big Tobacco—has held so much power over consumers and the economy. This perverse power is, perhaps, the single biggest challenge that nations and peoples will have to grapple with. Accountable Tech must be India’s leitmotif in 2023 as it presides over the G-20, and a robust digital republic its sovereign mission as its turns 75 next year. This will need sensible politics, sophisticated policies, and a return to first principles.

Concentration of wealth is a competition issue and an economic policy question. Left unregulated, it brings about inequality in income and opportunity. But concentration of power when it comes to discourse—what is promoted, shared or suppressed—should be more worrying. Safe-harbour provisions in the United States along with self-regulation principles have allowed Big Tech to cherry pick what is to be acted on and what is to be ignored, effectively making it the arbiter of permissible speech. For example, anti-vaccine Twitter users have thrived during the pandemic, while, sometimes, less dangerous actors have had their posts labelled. In January, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, denounced the de-platforming of then US President Donald Trump by Twitter. “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” Merkel’s Chief Spokesperson, Steffen Seibert said, “Given that, the Chancellor considers it problematic that the President’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”

The issue here is not whether Merkel agreed or disagreed with Trump’s tweets. The question is—who censors him, how, and with what process and level of transparency? For the Chancellor and for many, Twitter cannot choose for itself when it seeks to be a provider of public goods, and when it is a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections. When governments around the world describe digital connectivity as a ‘utility’, information lines cannot be disrupted by religious, cultural or ideological filters. Like water, electricity and roads, significant social media will have to serve all, even those its management and owners disapprove of.

[Platforms] cannot choose for [themselves] when they seek to be a provider of public goods, and when they are a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections.

The instances when utilities (say electricity and water) are denied or disconnected are specific, rare and regulated. Even in the information age, only the state and its three pillars have this right. Global Big Tech is not part of this constitutional arrangement. There are checks and balances in place, with legal recourse available for all within the state and for external actors as well. Any alternative to this constitutional setup would be akin to legitimising foreign influence operations in domestic affairs. In an extreme, for a country that is almost perpetually in election mode, it would be tantamount to election interference. This may seem like hyperbole, but it is closer to the truth than we suspect. For instance, if an electoral candidate makes an incendiary speech on a physical stage, the Election Commission, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary act against him—not the private company that has set up the stage or the power utility that has provided an electricity connection to the mike. Is the online equivalent being honoured by Big Tech?

Regulation of Big Tech across democratic setups

Australia gets this. In February, it passed the News Media Bargaining Code. The code encourages intermediary tech firms to negotiate deals with media outlets, effectively mandating that Facebook and Google pay news firms for content. The law was passed after a protracted battle between the Australian government and social media firms. It escalated when Facebook removed content of certain Australian news agencies, several official government handles, emergency services, and civil society organisations from its platform. Prime Minister Scott Morrison held firm: “These actions will only confirm the concerns … about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”

Canada, too, is making moves to curtail the wealth and discourse monopoly currently enjoyed by Big Tech. Just this week, Canadian lawmakers passed Bill C-10, which seeks to regulate the kind of content media streaming services prioritise on their platforms. The Bill, which is yet to be passed by the Senate, aims to make digital streaming platforms at par with traditional broadcasting services; the latter are obligated to increase the visibility and “discoverability” of Canadian content, and to set aside part of their profits to support a fund that promotes original Canadian productions.

Across the pond from the Americas, the European Union is also actively working towards mitigating the risks posed by the monopoly of Big Tech. Margrethe Vestager, Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, has stated that tech giants, “have the power to guide our political debates, and to protect—or undermine—our democracy.” In December 2020, Vestager and her office tabled the Digital Services Act (DSA), which seeks a systemic assessment of the varied social, economic and constitutional risks posed by the services provided by Big Tech.

The most decisive move yet has come from Poland, which has proposed a law to ‘limit’ the censorship tendencies of the tech giants. Soon after the deplatforming of Donald Trump by Twitter, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook: “Algorithms or the owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not. There can be no consent to censorship.” The new proposed law provides for a special mechanism for those whose content or profiles have been blocked/deleted by social media platforms, where they can complain directly to the platform, which is obligated to respond within 24 hours. After a review by a specially constituted “Freedom of Speech Council”, deleted content can be restored by order. If platforms do not comply, they can face a heavy fine of up to 50 million zloty (US $ 13.4 million).

Regulatory Frameworks in India

India, too, must take some tough calls. The vision of Digital India has advanced—from only four unicorn companies in 2014, India had 12 in just 2020 alone. Regulation must keep pace with this economic and social reality. It is absolutely critical that the Privacy and Data Protection (PDP) Bill, currently being examined by a Parliamentary Joint Committee be brought forth and enacted as law. Without the umbrella framework of the PDP bill, India’s regulation of Big Tech will be ad hoc, and may be misconstrued as a political instrument.

The vision of Digital India has advanced—from only four unicorn companies in 2014, India had 12 in just 2020 alone. Regulation must keep pace with this economic and social reality.

With respect to regulating intermediaries, the Indian government initiated a public consultation process in December 2018 and invited submissions from the public to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. A spectrum of civic, industry and academic actors participated. The rules were notified in February 2021, specifying clear compliance requirements within three months. Yet, the reaction of Big Tech platforms has been to delay, stall and obfuscate compliance.

It is high time that the actions of these companies were subject to systematic and rigorous Parliamentary oversight; but for that to happen, legislation is needed. Indian law and policy are rooted in our Constitutional principles. Indian policies on digital governance are no different, but they now need the imprimatur of Parliament to truly be effective. And should there be questions and grievances regarding the scope and constitutionality of the law, the courts of India will be the ultimate judge.

The objective of regulatory frameworks is to safeguard public interest, even (or perhaps especially) if it involves eroding the bottomlines of powerful vested interests. To once again quote the EU Commission’s Magrethe Vestager (in an intervention at a technology policy panel at the Raisina Dialogue earlier this year), regulating Big Tech, “Is a job, not a popularity contest”.

Perhaps, the real limitation is one of our imagination. In our minds, Silicon Valley is forever a happy, sunshine place, led by geeky, long-haired wunderkinds in t-shirts and flip-flops. The reality is Big Tech’s instincts today are driven by a single-minded sense of territoriality and collective impatience for different governance systems. For them, their ‘code is law’ and it is universal. That is at the crux of it.

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Research, Writing

Modern Geopolitics: A Race Through Chaos to Stability

Originally published in The Valdai Club. Co-authored with Aarshi Tirkey.

The third decade of the twenty-first century has compelled the world to face its most intractable challenge yet—offering a coherent, collective and equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has tested the faith of the most ardent internationalists, and is part of a deeper churn in the global order that was underway even before the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan in 2019.

US hegemony has all but come to an end and the rise of a multipolar world has effected a redistribution of power at the global stage. American leadership, that would have been essential to catalysing collective action against the pandemic, bordered on wanting to island itself from the rest of the world much before former US President Trump launched the “America First” campaign. The utopian vision of interdependence and global cooperation had already taken a beating in Europe when Brexit demolished the ideological and institutional underpinnings of the European Union. And China, the other great power, was engaged in its project ‘Pax Sinica’, determined to make globalisation beneficial for its Communist party.

Global institutions had weakened, and the benefits of investing political will into their mechanisms had greatly receded. The coronavirus further exacerbated this: While nations scrambled to respond to this fast-spreading disease, their immediate reaction was to look inwards, go at it alone or with trusted partners, and engage with the international community only for self-serving purposes. At the end of the day, all were ‘Darwinian’ and privileged their own survival without consideration and care for others. This is typified by the perverse ‘Vaccine Access’ world map.

Global institutions had weakened, and the benefits of investing political will into their mechanisms had greatly receded. The coronavirus further exacerbated this: While nations scrambled to respond to this fast-spreading disease, their immediate reaction was to look inwards, go at it alone or with trusted partners, and engage with the international community only for self-serving purposes. At the end of the day, all were ‘Darwinian’ and privileged their own survival without consideration and care for others. This is typified by the perverse ‘Vaccine Access’ world map.

As such, the postwar liberal international order—underwritten by the West under US leadership—had been facing an existential crisis since the turn of the century, with wars in South and West Asia and the Financial Crisis all challenging the old arrangements and aiding the rise of `China as a new revisionist power. And then the Virus from Wuhan exploded on the world stage, accelerating the processes that were already influencing modern geopolitics, a few of which are discussed here.

The 3 R’s of Modern Geopolitics

The first is readjustment, as countries are grappling with the impact of the rise of new regional and global actors. The American century has waned, and the rise of the Asian century—home to the growing economies in the world—is well on its way. The biggest challenge to the global balance of power comes from China, which is set to be the first major economy to rebound after the pandemic With the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s close integration with global supply chains, and its advancements in civilian and military technologies—Beijing’s rise appears to be an inevitable reality, howsoever much its international behaviour instills distrust among many, particularly the US and some of its allies.

A contest is, therefore, inevitable. In President Biden’s interim National Security Strategy Guidance, the rise of both China and Russia is treated as a challenge to a stable and open international system. President Xi Jinping—for his part—recently declared that Beijing will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave China and the focus of the party would be “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Will the two global powers head for a confrontation or choose to opt for a peaceful coexistence with limited and contained disagreements? The outcome of the US-China rivalry remains to be seen, and countries caught at the intersection of this evolving dynamic must take into account how they readjust their approach to this new age of geopolitics. Russia too will be asked some tough questions and will have to make some difficult choices. Can a positive Biden-Putin engagement play a stabilising role in the 21st Century? Or is a China-Russia nexus inevitable?

The outcome of the US-China rivalry remains to be seen, and countries caught at the intersection of this evolving dynamic must take into account how they readjust their approach to this new age of geopolitics. Russia too will be asked some tough questions and will have to make some difficult choices

Second, the hard-won consensus on the frameworks underpinning multilateralism and globalisation is undergoing a dramatic restructuring. The 2008 global financial crisis, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have exposed the fragility of global economic interdependence. The growth of hyper-nationalism and populist politics assess globalisation and multilateralism as arrangements that impinge on the sovereign choices of a state. As such, there is potential for the creation of a ‘gated globalisation’—a globalisation that is less free and less open than before. Economic policies are no longer solely dictated by economic principles; they are now guided by strategic considerations, political trust, climate, health and technological threats. Countries, such as the UK, US and India have introduced trade restrictions, investment screening mechanisms, sanctions and monetary policies to reflect these new considerations. China had already perfected their own model of perverse global integration.

The disillusionment with multilateralism can be directly attributed to institutional inertia, lack of reforms and capture by vested interests, which continue to hamper decision making before these organisations. Countries are, therefore, leaning towards smaller groupings to forge fluid, issue-specific partnerships, which can expedite cooperation between like-minded countries. While this can be one way to overcome the malaise of multilaterals, they may hamper the development of broader and cohesive international strategies for ‘global bads’—from COVID-19 to climate change—which require the participation and commitment of all. The pandemic is not over till all are vaccinated and secured and the threat of climate change is not going to recede by unilateral actions of any single state. The ongoing restructuring calls for the need for new arrangements that can redress the inefficiencies of multilateralism and globalisation, without diminishing their larger benefits. Can a ‘consortium of plurilaterals groupings’ agree to a common minimum framework to address the challenges that confront us all even as they engage within their own clubs to maximise their economy and security?

In the midst of this churn, geopolitics has been reoriented to accommodate new actors, and emerging factors and considerations. Modern geopolitics is increasingly influenced by geoeconomics and geo-technology. Important works, such as War by Other Means, talk of the systemic use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical objectives—a form of statecraft that was present during the Marshall plan, and is present today as well through China’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ and more generally the BRI.

Modern geopolitics is increasingly influenced by geoeconomics and geo-technology. Important works, such as War by Other Means, talk of the systemic use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical objectives—a form of statecraft that was present during the Marshall plan, and is present today as well through China’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ and more generally the BRI

If the medium is the message, then technology is the future of our politics. The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has resulted in the development of technologies that can be both a boon and a bane for humankind. While America was at the forefront of technological leadership in the recent past, this is being challenged by China as it invests heavily in emerging and dual-use technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, and biotechnology. First movers may not only take the mantle of technological leadership, but will also become the providers for other countries, creating asymmetric dependencies. ‘GeoTech’ opens a new realm of interstate competition, where concerns of national security and strategic autonomy implicate technology choices and arrangements. In an increasingly digital world, the capture of data—and not territory—and the compromise of critical information infrastructure—and not state borders—are the new security challenges for nations. As an individual’s attention, eyeballs and personal data become the coveted political prize, will the next domain of conflict be the human form and how we will protect it?

New Actors, New Geographies

While the above factors remain at the heart of this churn, new actors and geographies are influencing the conduct of geopolitics. Though the coronavirus hearkened the return of the ‘nation-state’, communities across borders represent a robust challenge to this primary unit of Westphalian sovereignty. The concentration of economic resources and power in global technology companies, from Twitter to Tencent, has driven home the fact that states are no longer the primary actors in the world. Hate, tribalism and irrational ideologies have returned with new vigour, riding on the reach and amplification of digital technologies. Technology giants are now the arbiters of economic and political choices and are challenging the writ of the older political systems.

The emergence of new geographies, such as the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia and the Arctic—in which all regional and global powers have stakes—demand the genesis of new norms, institutions and partnerships. In a universally parochial world, there is limited appetite or leadership to shape and create these. In sum, the pandemic confirmed the decline of the US as a superpower and sharpened questions on Beijing’s moral and political capability to step into the void. Even with its attendant equity and efficiency losses, the importance of‘multi-polarity’—first ideated by Primakov through the Russia, India and China trilateral mechanism—received a resolute confirmation. It has urged that we appreciate this shifting nature of global and domestic affairs to be able to adapt to an increasingly complex world, that is no longer tethered to a conventional understanding of geopolitics.

While the ability to project power globally resides with the US, the world is steadily moving towards political, economic, technological and normative multipolarity. The evolving contours of modern geopolitics is still in a state of flux, and there is wisdom in accepting the notion that the end result is perhaps indeterminable. The age of disruption is here, countries that thrive on disorder may do well in the short term, while nations who invest in stability may well define the future of globalisation and, indeed, the new world order.

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