Home >opinion >online-views >Opinion | Big tech chiefs speak with forked tongues

When I lived in the United States, I used to delight in telling an old story about a Native American chief standing with full feathered headgear in the middle of Grand Central Terminal Station in New York City. He held a cardboard sign that read “I need a job". As people would pass him by, they would offer the traditional greeting how and call out to him saying “how chief!" At each instance, instead of responding to the traditional greeting by saying how back, he would mutter “chance".

A woman who had been observing these interchanges for a while walked up to the chief wanting to know why he didn’t acknowledge the many greetings by responding to them with the traditional how. The chief looked at her and said earnestly, “That’s because I know ‘how’ to do plenty of things already. Now all I want is a chance to do them". I would often use this story to point to my own South Asian Indian heritage and say that I also felt like the chief. I already knew how, and all I wanted was a chance. The story always elicited a chuckle from my interlocutors, and helped me win many a consulting assignment.

A few days ago, Mint reported that Tim Cook, the chief of Apple Inc., addressed an august audience at an international conference on data privacy in Brussels. In an impassioned speech, which was also excellently written, he opened by conjuring up the ghost of Niccolò Machiavelli—who wrote a treatise for unscrupulous politicians, he spoke about the need for countries to regulate the use of personal data and to ensure the privacy of their citizens.

He said he would welcome such regulation while reiterating Apple’s oft-used rhetoric about its commitment to user privacy and, by implication, the lack of commitment from his competitors such as Amazon and Google. In my opinion, the latter has bypassed Apple in data-driven Artificial Intelligence, and both Amazon and Google have surpassed Apple in voice assistants. These intelligent voice assistants represent the future of how we will interact with phones and computers and will be a large step away from the graphical apps we have on our phones today. After we as consumers have adopted voice as the main means of interaction, enterprises who serve us are bound to invest heavily in voice recognition as well—and Amazon and Google will hold the edge.

Cook didn’t stop there. He said that modern technology has created a “data-industrial complex", and that this complex doesn’t just threaten individuals, but also communities and nation states. “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies," quoth he. “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy."

Cook said that he would welcome a US federal law that limits the activity of tech titans in much the same way Europe’s 28-country General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR.

Limiting tech titans’ activities with regulation may be fine, but does that allow governments to be above such laws? Most reasonable people would say no. In countries like India and the US, a court warrant is required before governments can investigate and impound personal data. The laws in China, however, are different and allow the government wide powers of investigation.

In February, Apple announced that it would for the first time store the keys for Chinese iCloud accounts in China itself. This was in response to a new Chinese law mandating that such data be stored locally. Oddly, there was no mention of Machiavelli from Cook at that time.

Reuters reported then that according to legal experts, Apple’s move means Chinese authorities will no longer have to use the US court system to seek information on iCloud users and can instead use their own legal system to ask Apple to hand over iCloud data for Chinese users. Human rights activists said they fear the authorities could use their powers to track down the discontented, citing cases from more than a decade ago in which Yahoo Inc. handed over user data that led to arrests and prison sentences for two democracy advocates in China.

Last week, I wrote that Google’s chief has said that his firm could no longer afford to ignore China and was making attempts to test a search engine subject to state censorship there. This despite Google’s earlier denials that it was entering the Chinese search engine fray. One set of rules for China and another set for the rest of us. As a Native American would say, methinks the big tech chiefs speak with a forked tongue.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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