Will Reliance Jio join the ranks of global big tech companies in India?

Goa, July 30 2020: Tandem Research, a leading technology and society think tank in India, has released a report , titled A Balancing Act: The Promise and Peril of Big Tech in India
The study is based on over 400 academic and journalistic pieces, and traces the emergence and consolidation of Big Tech companies in India, a trend that has been accelerated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The competition for Indian markets is also heating up, with Google’s plan to invest $10 bn in India and Facebook and Google’s investments in Jio Platforms.
Key Findings

  1. Big Tech firms are important for India’s digital journey. Google, with 95% of India’s desktop search enquiries is a gateway to the internet for a vast majority of Indians. Amazon has been running its public sector programme in India since 2017, helping government agencies and offices to switch to cloud-based systems.
  2. Foreign Big Tech firms dominate Indian markets: With more than 400 million monthly average users (MAU), India is WhatsApp’s largest market. Facebook has 328 million monthly active users (MAU) and a user base of 270 million users in India - the highest in the world. Amazon also has a large market presence, with at least 30% market share in e-commerce and more than 5.5 lakh sellers on its platform. Big Tech firms provide market infrastructure and innovation, but also have anti-competitive practices. This can sometimes crowd-out smaller players with less capital in the market. Addressing the market power of Big Tech companies requires updating competition policy, platform neutrality, and platform interoperability.
  3. Big Tech firms affect India’s civic life: People in India increasingly rely on digital platforms—search (32%) or social media (24%)—as their main way of accessing news online. Political parties, candidates and other stakeholders spent $7.74 million to enlist the services of companies such as Google and Facebook in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Their platforms enable access to information and communication, but are also prone to misinformation and politicisation. To be responsible information gateways, Big Tech platforms should adhere to publisher ethics and open up their algorithms to external audit.
  4. Big Tech firms lead to privacy concerns: Like many other digital companies, Big Tech companies such as Google Pay and Amazon Pay often do not explicitly state what kind of sensitive information is being collected or what grievance redressal mechanisms are available. In 2019, France Data Protection Authority levied a fine of $57 Mn to Google for breaching GDPR. Personalised services provided by Big Tech companies are valuable for many users, but can undermine individual and group privacy. In addition to individual privacy rights, we need to establish collective data rights, develop models for data stewardship, and mandate Big Tech firms to privacy protecting business models.
  5. Data, Taxation and Law Enforcement are big pain points: 14 out of the 15 data centres owned by Facebook are located in developed countries despite India being Facebook’s largest market. Big Tech companies products and services are filling gaps in state capacity, but this raises concerns around democratic accountability and sovereign independence. Securing India’s sovereign interests in the digital economy, requires investments in state and market capacity, fair taxation and better cross-better data flows.
  6. Reliance Jio is India’s likeliest Big Tech firm: It increasingly resembles many of the markers of Big Tech. For example, in 2019, Reliance Jio set up Jio Platforms as an umbrella platform for all the Reliance-owned digital businesses. In May 2020, Jio Platforms was reported to be the fourth largest Indian company by market. With $10 billion Facebook investment, Reliance Jio is rapidly expanding. Jio Mart outlets across 200 cities in India. Reliance Jio is also expanding horizontally by adding new portfolios through mergers and acquisitions. Reliance spent nearly $1.33 billion in 2018 to acquire a diverse range of start-ups.
  7. India needs a graded approach to Big Tech regulation. Some policy pathways are implementable in the short-run, while others will require international coordination and are complex. Trying to solve the most thorny issues first might delay other, quicker fixes. For example, the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) establishes new norms for company accountability, allowing Californians to opt out of the selling of their personal information. To reinforce this right, businesses have to provide a clear link on their homepage titled ‘Do Not Sell My Personal Information’ that enables the consumer to opt out. Similarly, German regulators in 2019 ruled that Facebook will have to stop automatically collecting and combining data from subsidiaries like Instagram and WhatsApp. Instead, it needs to give German users a choice. Such a step prevents companies from building comprehensive user profiles for targeted advertising.

The full report can be downloaded here