India pushes back against internet giants

- VINDU GOEL, NEW DELHI

Sep 2, 2018-

In India, American companies dominate the internet. Facebook’s WhatsApp is the most popular app on phones. Virtually every smartphone runs on Google’s Android system. YouTube is the favorite video platform and Amazon is the No. 2 online retailer.

For some Indian political leaders, it is as if their nation - which was ruled by Britain for a century until 1947 - is being conquered by colonial powers all over again.

And they are determined to stop it.

“As a country, we have to all grow up and say that, you know, enough of this,” Vinit Goenka, a railways official who works on technology policy for India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said at a conference last week.

In recent months, regulators and ministers across India’s government have declared their intention to impose tough new rules on the technology industry. Collectively, the regulations would end the free rein that American tech giants have long enjoyed in this country of 1.3 billion people, which is the world’s fastest-growing market for new internet users.

The proposals include European-style limits on what big internet companies can do with users’ personal data, a requirement that tech firms store certain sensitive data about Indians only within the country, and restrictions on the ability of foreign-owned e-commerce companies to undercut local businesses on price. The policy changes unfolding in India would be the latest to crimp the power - and profits - of American tech companies, and they may well contribute to the fracturing of the global internet.

In May, Europe put into effect a sweeping new privacy law that gives Europeans more control over what information is being collected on them. In the United States, California just passed a privacy law that gives state residents more protections than Americans at large.

As India sets the new rules of the game, it is seeking inspiration from China. Although India does not want to go as far as China, which has cut off its internet from the global one, officials admire Beijing’s tight control over citizens’ data and how it has nurtured homegrown internet giants like Alibaba and Baidu by limiting foreign competition. At the same time, regulators do not want to push out the American internet services that hundreds of millions of Indians depend on.

For Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, India’s moves would curb a lucrative business avenue - especially after so many of them were blocked in China. India had become the companies’ next frontier for growth.

Salman Waris, an expert in international technology law at TechLegis in New Delhi, said India was trying to establish strong data protections for its citizens, as Europe did, while giving the government the right to obtain private information as it sees fit, much as China does. Foreign tech companies will have little choice but to go along.

“Everyone is going to fall in line and do what is necessary,” Waris said. “These companies have to do it in China and Europe, and they will do it here.”

India’s new policies are still a work in progress, with competing government agencies jousting with foreign and domestic lobbyists and policy advocates to shape them.

But new restrictions are definitely coming, said officials and industry executives involved in the process. The country’s Supreme Court declared last summer that Indians have a fundamental right to privacy and pushed Parliament to pass a data privacy law. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his B.J.P. party have embraced an India-first economic nationalism to address weak job growth ahead of elections next year. Law enforcement authorities are also demanding more legal tools to extract private customer data from WhatsApp, Facebook and financial firms.

— © 2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published: 02-09-2018 07:56

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