Data Societies: How information gives corporate giants power to threaten liberal democracies
The story of the Indian democracy is being shaped by the data economy in the urban milieu, with concerns for privacy of citizens and dignity of Indian labour.
The phrase 'data is the new oil' has been doing the rounds in the tech-business as everyone is convinced that we live in a data-driven economy. The discussion on data economy at the Economic and Political Weekly conference Data Societies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) tried to unpack the various ways to look at data, and, how the edge on data mining enjoyed by the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) challenges our traditional understanding of markets and monopolies.
Competition in data economy
“Who has used Nokia phones?" Hundreds of hands went up in the audience. “Who all are using Nokia phones now?” Most hands in the room went down. Alok Prasanna Kumar, team lead of Vidhi and an expert on law and technology, began the discussion by mentioning the domineering position enjoyed by Nokia in the past, which is now lost because the company did not have that one thing that other FANG giants do. He drew attention to the moats of data on which tech giants sit, giving them the power to restrict the entry to firms in the market. “If tomorrow two PhD Scholars came up with a better algorithm than Google, they would still not be able to provide their service better than Google for the simple reason that they would not have Google’s data. Because of that Google knows exactly what users want". Citing the example of a decision by the Competition Commission of India regarding a feud between MakeMyTrip and Google Flights, he explained how the legal body's decision was about protecting competitors against monopoly giants, offsetting the advantage enjoyed by consumers. He pointed out that global competition laws need to rethink monopolies, because even though they aim to provide the best services, they harm the market. He further drew attention to monopolies abusing political power, which threatens “not only the market but the functioning of liberal democracy”.
The various metaphors of data
Nayantara Ranganathan, lawyer and researcher, spoke about her research on data consumption and argued for multiple ways of looking at data, and not just simplistically as a resource. A staunch critic of 'demonetisation of data', she disagreed that competition in the data economy is the core challenge that threatens the end user and democracy. “Extraction of user’s data in the service of private capital existed even when Nokia was enjoying the domineering position in the market” she remarked. According to her, we instead need to be mindful of the various metaphors of understanding data which are more representative of the lived experiences of people and of the way data is seen by business interests. “We can’t let one imagination of data as a resource guide the legal frameworks on personal data protection laws. Such a singular understanding of data can be dangerous for the citizens." She also criticised the simplistic notions of data employed by the personal data protection bill, in which health data is treated as sensitive data, but what food you ordered on Swiggy yesterday doesn’t come under that category. According to her, these boundaries are fluid and we can’t fix the contexts in which one kind of data is sensitive and the other is not.
Data-driven gig economy and the implications for labour
The chair, Aayush Rathi, who is a researcher at Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, drew attention to the idea that in the data economy, companies are not really innovating but outsourcing some of the core functions of their business to a network of “partners” which is changing the relationship between the employer and the employees.
Aditi Surie, another panellist who researches city economies gave insights into the precariousness of informal labour, employed by on-demand digital platforms and how it shapes the urban story. She talked about the issues experienced by a carpenter with 30 years of experience whose business got disrupted post-demonetisation and was forced to engage with platform economy to find work. In this ecosystem, he had to start from scratch with zero ratings, and the platform doesn’t give him the freedom to build social networks, or negotiate the price he charges for his work, in turn alienating him from the process of his work.
Discussing labour laws to ensure workers rights, Aayush Rathi pointed out that only 2 percent of the labour force in India is covered by such laws, while the 98 percent works in the informal economy. Panellist Kumar further expressed that labour laws in India suffer from two restrictive assumptions - one a fixed notion of workplace of labour and two, an identifiable employer. Since in gig economies, it is ultimately the informal worker who lacks social security and solely bears the costs of his work , Alok raised the question of who gets to bear these costs, the employers, or the governments or both.
The story of the Indian democracy is being shaped by the data economy in the urban milieu, with concerns for privacy of citizens and dignity of Indian labour. The discussion shed light on the different approaches with which we need to look at data and data economy.
Abhra Singha Roy and Isha Tyagi are first year MA students of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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