A global body to regulate tech advances

The lopsided distribution of technology benefits is a known fact, but regulators are flummoxed with how to deal with the problem


Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

In a past column, I touched upon what has come to be known as the ‘digital divide’ between the haves and the have-nots and suggested that it may be time for a supra-national body similar to the World Health Organization to be constituted to help govern the world of technology. My argument is that, to some degree at least, technology is a public good, just as basic health is, and its benefits need to be shared across a larger swathe of the world’s population.

In a scathing article in the Financial Times last week, Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, argues that the technology giants of today such as Microsoft completely ignore the fact that the majority of the world’s population—especially those in developing countries—are still stuck in a pre-industrial age, and that technology as the developed world knows it—search engines, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and so on—are of no use to people who have to still practise pre-industrial techniques such as slash-and-burn farming in order to survive. I must have been reading his thoughts.

He talks of the yearly haze that blankets countries such as Singapore and Malaysia when farmers in Indonesia burn their oil palm crop every year so that they can plant anew—while developers and IT executives sit in air-conditioned rooms and hold conferences about the future of technology, blissfully unaware of pre-industrial age social problems, such as where to find a toilet. He claims that when a question about this deep digital divide was posed to Microsoft, the spokesperson’s answer was: “This is a question for a futurist to ponder, and not one for technologists to worry about.”

The lopsided distribution of technology benefits is a known fact, but regulators are flummoxed with how to deal with the problem. Regulation—or governmental activism—to date has been focused only on three vectors. First, the attempt to break monopolistic market power held by a few corporations. Second, an attempt to mop up a larger share of the tax pie when such companies experience enormous profits. And, third, a clumsy attempt to protect privacy by forcing data on customers to stay in the country where it was first generated.

At the beginning of this century, Microsoft was hit by US regulators who found that its Internet Explorer, which was bundled with Windows software, was an attempt to shut out other Internet browsers, and forced to pay a hefty fine for indulging in monopolistic practices. The European Union (EU) is now trying to force search engines to not use their market power to coerce content providers such as news organizations to provide their information for free on their search engine sites. YouTube has been banned in China, and Google simply shut down operations in Spain when the Spaniards tried to charge a levy on Google aggregating content from news organizations and then providing this news for free for users of its search engine or mobile operating systems.

Tax legislation, sometimes even grand-fathered to defeat judgements handed down by an apex court—as happened in the famed Vodafone India tax case—is an example of a national government going to great lengths to use policy to widen its tax net, or the second vector.

We now have WhatsApp using a change in its privacy policy to hand over its users’ information to Facebook, its parent, after first claiming that no one, not even WhatsApp, can see the content of the messages that its users send to one another. WhatsApp, of course, claims that this data is only going to be used for it to “explore ways in which its users can interact with businesses that matter to them without being subjected to third-party banner ads and spam”. Well, okay, but Daddy Facebook is even rumoured to have algorithms that can predict when two of its users are falling in love with one another.

Most outsourcers in India are hampered by ham-handed EU privacy laws which mandate that personal data regarding European citizens needs to stay in Europe. Streamlined, supra-national legislation in this area—governing the capture and use of personal data, and the nature of the myriad personal relationships that individuals have with one another online—will be necessary soon. The present clumsy laws need to change.

Regulation has not yet addressed the fourth vector—the use of technology for the common good. In one of my recent discussions with Kashyap Kompella, a researcher at The Real Story Group, he spoke of the need for an ‘Indian Technology Service’ to be included among India’s civil service agencies. This, he argued, could support the formation of unified policies for bringing technological benefits to the poor, as well as making sure that data privacy issues are managed with no negative impact on the citizenry.

My take is that while such national, governmental bodies are necessary so that each country can form its own technology policies, there are certain aspects of the rapid advance of technology that can only be governed and managed through supra-national bodies that ensure a modicum of egalitarian distribution of the positive aspects of technology (i.e. technology’s characteristics as a public good) and the negative aspects (data piracy, identity theft and other such public dangers posed by cyber criminals) are policed and kept to a minimum. In all seriousness, I would vote that China be the first president of this body.

Siddharth Pai is a management and technology consultant.

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