The West is suspicious of China’s tech ambitions. India is wary of Big Tech’s unfettered access to and commercial use of Indian data. It boils down to a question of trust. Users are increasingly asking: who do I distrust the least, writes India Inc Founder and CEO Manoj Ladwa.
A Bloomberg report from May last year said China has drawn up a five-year $1.4-trillion plan to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) and other sophisticated technology tools to overtake the West and emerge as the numero uno tech power in the world. Various arms of the Chinese government and private sector giants like Huawei and others are an integral part of this stupendously ambitious goal.
The Chinese have established a well-deserved reputation for mastering the most advanced technologies such as AI, machine learning (ML), internet of things (IoT), etc. – never mind the beg-borrow-or-steal methods used to gain access to such innovations.
The West is understandably nervous. Till just a few years ago, companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Nokia and a few other mostly US companies were the unchallenged kings of the technology world.
Somewhat belatedly, in the wake of the US-China trade war and the Covid-19 outbreak, the US, Australia, Italy, the UK and the EU have banned, or are considering partial or blanket bans on 5G telecom equipment supplied by China’s Huawei. The US also clamped down almost completely on technology exports or collaborations with China.
India, too, has severely curbed the access of Chinese technology and other companies to its vast market, but for other geo-political reasons.
This is where, I believe, India can step in as a non-threatening alternative to China in collaborating with the West on the latest technological breakthroughs for mutual benefit.
And while I broadly agree with the Western point of view on China, I also think there is merit in India’s somewhat wary approach towards US Big Tech firms. India is not alone here. Australia’s stand-off with Google and Facebook over access to news reports is unfolding by the day. France, UK and the EU are also in the midst of tax-related and other disputes with Big Tech companies.
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India has traditionally exported its talent to the US; this has contributed significantly to the US being able to maintain its lead over other nations in cutting edge technologies.
But this same talent can, with the right conditions in India, also reprise the role they are playing in the US and the rest of the West and develop world beating products and services not only for the Indian market but also for the world.
The country’s skills at frugal engineering and management techniques have already reached legendary proportions. And the Modi government is making huge efforts to create the right environment for this homegrown talent to blossom within India. This can ensure the timely development of cost-effective products that meet the needs of people across the globe.
Take the example of RuPay, India’s domestically developed card payment system, which emerged as the largest payment card network in India by number of transactions in June 2017, three years after its launch, pushing VISA to the #2 position in India.
In 2019, Rupay reported 1 billion transactions. By January 2020, more than 600 million RuPay cards had been issued and, besides India, are valid in Singapore, South Korea, Australia, UAE, Saudi Arabia. Additionally, these cards are valid in many other countries through reciprocal arrangements with other banks and card issuers.
Then, there is the question of trust. An important question many tech users ask is: How safe is my personal data and my private conversations?
This is one reason why India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeITY) has put its weight behind two WhatsApp-like messaging apps called “Samvad” and “Sandes”, which means "conversation" and "message", respectively.
These apps, now in their beta stage, are a response to a need felt by the Narendra Modi government to have a developed-in-India, owned-by-Indians messaging service that would ensure that users’ data is not taken abroad without requisite permissions or used for commercial purposes by others.
And yes, these apps have been in development from much before the controversy broke over WhatsApp’s now shelved unilateral proposal to share user data with parent Facebook. The question of why the Indian government is entering the space rather than India’s innovative private sector is also rather interesting, and to some, of concern.
Then, there is currently a raging controversy in India over Twitter’s alleged double standards regarding posts on the country’s internal political developments by handles the government says are inimical to the country’s interests.
After initially refusing to block the handles, the US-based micro-blogging site has started acting on the Indian government’s demands. This reluctance to comply with Indian laws has prompted many ministers in the Modi government, including Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar as well as several state Chief Ministers, Members of Parliament and government departments to subscribe to Twitter’s homegrown rival Koo, which allows 400-word messages.
Though Koo has already registered about three million downloads, its success is not yet a given. And there is no guarantee that a wider rollout of Samvad and Sandes, outside of a closed circuit of government officials, will be successful.
The question, as I’ve said above, will boil down to who the consumer trusts more. Their success will depend on that one point. That is the most important question in any democratic free market society.
As of now, we don’t have the answers to that question. Media reports suggest that there could be loopholes in Koo’s security firewalls. And we will know more about Samvad and Sandes only when one or both are thrown open for public use.
But the fact that many more Indians are moving to Indian apps and technology platforms could provide tailwinds to Indian tech start-ups, help them gain global scale.
Call it another step towards achieving Modi’s vision of achieving an Atma Nirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) or call it a form of tech nationalism or even call it both or neither. A point to ponder over: If this is tech nationalism, will you also dub the West’s partial / full ban on Chinese tech the same?
Whatever name you give it, this global trend seems here to stay.