On November 18, in a large room with wood-panelled walls and a thick red carpet, Shivnath Thukral, the India head of public policy for Facebook
— now Meta Platforms — sat in an ornate wooden chair at one end of a long oval table. The others around the table were members of the Delhi Assembly Committee on Peace and Harmony.
The head of the committee, Raghav Chadha, who has risen dramatically in Delhi politics since joining the Aam Aadmi Party when it was formed in 2012, was dressed in a dark suit and purple necktie and wore rimless spectacles. He dominated the scene with his polished speech. Thukral, in contrast, had the look of a man who knew this was not going to be the most enjoyable afternoon of his life. He started most of his sentences by paying respect to the chair or members of the committee.
The committee was relentless in trying to put Thukral on the mat over “hate speech” related to the communal violence that shook Delhi in February last year. Questions ranged from the religious composition of Facebook’s India team — Thukral, with respect, pointed out it was against the law — to whether Facebook
operated only in India. The latter baffled Thukral so much he fumbled for an interminable moment before answering.
You could feel the committee’s glee in having one of the Big Tech
firms at its mercy. This is not an uncommon emotion these days.
Facebook, of course, is on the defensive over its handling of “hate speech”. WhatsApp, which Meta owns, gets castigated as a “university” for all sorts of theories. Street protests are going on about marijuana sold on Amazon.
A magazine put Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, on the cover calling his company the new East India Company (it was a bit much even for a publication openly aligned with a certain ideology). Twitter, early this year, was under a relentless attack for its refusal to block accounts that spoke about “farmer genocide”.
Expectedly, policymakers have moved in to restrain Big Tech, as seen in the much-debated new information technology rules in May. On Monday, reports said the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the data protection law wants social media platforms to be treated as publishers and answer for unverified accounts.
indeed needs better regulation and management for the simple reason that they have an enormous sway over people’s attention and make money from advertisers by monetising this attention. There is also undeniable pleasure for a lot of people in seeing the big, fat, rich guys being brought to heel.
But, is Big Tech all bad? Do we want to throw Big Tech out with the bathwater? Is that even possible?
Battling with ironies
As the committee led by Raghav Chadha grilled Facebook, the session was being shown live on YouTube, the video platform owned by Google, which is as much a member of the Big Tech club as Facebook.
Talk about irony.
Early this year, when Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for information technology at the time, waged a battle against Twitter, his salvos came as tweets. When the standoff was going on, people were using Twitter
to encourage a migration to Koo, an Indian microblogging platform. Piyush Goyal, the commerce and industry minister, announced his joining Koo in a — what else? — tweet.
Not too long ago, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) was urging the government to ban WhatsApp. There is a chance some of that persuasion may have gone as WhatsApp messages; Praveen Khandelwal, CAIT’s head, is a prolific user of the platform.
The point is Big Tech is an inalienable part of our lives, more so in the post-pandemic world, which has made digital technologies central to the way we work, play, learn, socialise, and entertain ourselves. Sure, Big Tech is here to benefit from us, but there is something worthwhile in it for us as well.
The good side of Big Tech
Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Google provided vital information and support every hour of every day when the second wave of Covid-19 raged and people searched desperately for things such as oxygen and hospital beds. The role of social media, especially Twitter
and Facebook, is well documented in helping fights against oppressive, autocratic regimes and injustice. They have democratised communication and taken the monopoly over large audiences out of the hands of the few.
It is not only about crises and unrest. It is also about livelihoods and the economy, especially small businesses, which are the engine of growth and job creation, and critical to the post-pandemic recovery.
Meta says Facebook helps millions of small businesses in India connect with customers, and that 15 million start their online journeys on WhatsApp every month.
Potentially, any customer anywhere in the world is available to them. On Facebook, 300 million people either like or follow an Indian small business page. Indians created 1.2 million posts and comments in the last three months on Instagram, also owned by Meta, to show their support for small businesses and local buying.
has committed $1 billion to digitise small businesses, aiming to create a million jobs and enabling $10 billion in cumulative e-commerce exports by 2025. It says 2.5 million micro, small and medium enterprises work with its India platform, including sellers, artisans and weavers, and delivery and logistics people.
There could be another side to these stories and some claims may be open to counters. CAIT’s Khandelwal would surely have an interesting perspective on small businesses.
However, even if the truth lies somewhere in between, it could be worth finding. And once we find it, we can spin eye-popping posts on platforms owned by Big Tech.
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