“AI has a profound impact on global enterprises, and India has become core to developing solutions around these and delivering them,” Fractal Analytics’ co-founder Velamakanni said in a technology webinar. India’s big tech industry is developing at a fast pace in India; despite the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, AI startups in India have attracted total funding of $836.3 million — the largest funding outlay in the last seven years at a 9.7%. This has caused a 336% rise in technology FDI between April and September of 2020. From zero members, the country’s Unicorn club grew to 37 in just ten years (from 2010-2020), standing tall at 52 today.
Shailendra Singh, Sequoia India’s managing director said in an interview that India is gearing towards an IPO centric market. Indian tech companies such as Appier, Salesken, Wobot, and Basis AI are being backed by Sequoia.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the government’s flagship programme ‘Digital India’, aimed at transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Since the 2014 elections, the Modi government has had a massive presence on social media platforms and invited foreign tech behemoths to invest in India. But today, this ideal appears to be getting shackled to policies that control and censor online activity, with the firms under constant scrutiny. The government’s latest policies raise questions on just how friendly the ruling party is with big tech.
Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer, commented that India does not have a clear vision of whether it wants to have a tech industry on the lines of Silicon Valley or China. She said this, criticising the internet-related rules like the data protection bill and the social media rules that have put an invisible target on the back of these companies.
IT regulations implemented since February have concerned activists and citizens who are calling them unconstitutional and undemocratic. Essentially, the new rules force tech companies to comply with the government, giving the latter more power to manage their image. The new rules mandate social media platforms to “enable the identification of the first originator” for flagged content, essentially ending end-to-end encryption. Additionally, the policy also asks these internet businesses to elect a grievance officer to be available at the beck and call of law enforcement officials.
American social media companies are at the centre of India’s political discourse and narratives, and they are also bowing down to the government’s rules. Initially, the big tech companies also dissented. In May, when the new rules went into effect, WhatsApp sued the Indian government for forcing the company to break the app’s encryption and compromise people’s privacy. In February, Twitter took a stand, refusing to fully comply with the Indian government’s orders to restrict more than 250 accounts since it “would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” according to their blog post. Since then, Twitter’s office has been raided, and authorities have asked the company, along with Instagram, and Facebook, to remove hundreds of posts.
In the scenario that they don’t comply, these big tech companies risk losing one of the biggest social media markets with 1.3 billion users. Following this, in February, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts of journalists, media outlets, and politicians from opposition parties and pro-farmer tweets during the controversial farmers’ protests, against new agricultural laws, on the pretext of them being controversial. India’s former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad addressed this situation, clarifying that the government’s problems are not with social media but its misuse.
Big tech has seen its fair share of friendship in the Indian sector, especially by expanding with local partners. For instance, Facebook picked a 9.99 per cent stake in Reliance Industries Jio in 2020. This June, Google announced a collaboration with Jio to create smartphones. Reliance’s owner, Mukesh Ambani’s wealth ballooned by $22 billion during the initial pandemic months.
BJP leaders have previously spoken against big tech companies, calling them “the new oligarchs”, yet they understood how to turn the tables in their favour. Associate fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Anirudh Burman, wrote in March 2020 that the bill “significantly strengthens the power of the state to regulate the behaviour of businesses that collect personal data.” He followed it up by commenting on how this opens up the gates for any government agency to opt out of complying with the requirements of the bill.
The gap between big tech and democracy in India seems to be getting bigger, and the world is raising eyebrows since they explicitly threaten local executives with jail time.