Home / Opinion / An ‘everything app’ is a nightmare for our freedoms

Monopoly, the board game, is often held up as a demonstration of capitalism, teaching us how business works. Actually, it does more than that. While it is true that a budding capitalist’s goal is to grab as large a market share as possible, the game shows that allowing a player to do so is bad for society as a whole. Now there is nothing wrong in a business person seeking a monopoly. It is for society—through its political institutions—to protect its broader interests and check monopolistic tendencies through public policy.

It is not surprising that technology entrepreneurs should dream of an “everything app", a smartphone application that will deliver everything to everyone. Elon Musk has become the latest investor to declare an ambition to build such a super-app, saying that his shotgun acquisition of Twitter “is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app." There are others who want to emulate the success of WeChat, a Chinese super-app that elevated Tencent, its developer to the apex of China’s tech ecosystem.

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Much of the immediate reaction to Musk’s declaration centred around the difficulty of creating an everything app outside China today. Yes, it is true that WeChat’s timing was important in its success, that integrating payments is tricky because financial regulations are strict and vary across jurisdictions and that user behaviour in China might differ from that in other countries. But these are Musk’s problems.

Of greater concern to free societies around the world is the fact that an “everything app" presents massive risks to personal, economic and political freedom. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball says, “It’s no coincidence at all that WeChat is the only ‘everything app’ anyone can cite, and it comes from China, an authoritarian regime. In practice, the concept really only makes sense there. It doesn’t benefit users that WeChat dominates all aspects of digital life—it benefits the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party. (And investors in Tencent, WeChat’s Chinese-government-controlled parent company.)"

It is practically impossible for a person in China to opt out of WeChat. The user is socially locked into a ‘private’ company for performing any or all socio- economic functions. Tencent and the Chinese Communist Party thus have massive power and influence over hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. The company behind an everything app will have a greater hold over citizens minds, choices and actions than religious, social and political leaders ever did. No sovereign state, let alone a liberal democracy, should accept such an outcome.

It does not matter if everything apps are foreign or indigenous. To the extent that they dominate markets and have influence, they are a threat to individual freedom and state sovereignty. Instead of waiting until it is too late, public policy must prevent apps from acquiring socio-economic dominance in the first place.

This can be done in two ways. The first is to ensure that the market for apps, operating systems and platforms is competitive. In addition to applying consumer protection and competition laws, India needs stronger privacy and data protection laws as part of the Digital India legislation that the Union government is contemplating. Already home-grown apps that started off as ride-sharing, food delivery and apartment-entry services are moving towards becoming super-apps. Legislation should inject regulatory hurdles, friction and legal firewalls to prevent entrepreneurs from acquiring multi-market dominance.

The second way is for the state to promote open public digital infrastructure and require interoperability. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and newly launched Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) are examples. Even these should be pushed in the direction of greater openness, sustainable business models and greater competition.

At a deeper level, Musk’s desire to emulate the Chinese model alerts us to a lurking danger: the interests of Big Tech are diverging from those of liberal democracies. That their ad-based business models are problematic is well known and under public scrutiny. Less recognized is how national interests can be undermined by thoughtless adoption of tech business models that willy-nilly take us to a dystopia of unfreedom. Engineers and managers who generally lack a broad education in civics, humanities and ethics are poorly equipped to make socially responsible choices. Entrepreneurs taking inspiration from Chinese apps and business models should worry us. Investors, founders and educational institutions must make an effort to educate tech professionals on social issues. Preserving our freedoms may indeed be their most important corporate social responsibility. India’s interests would be better served if technology companies use their CSR funds to invest in giving their workforce a liberal education than in doing social welfare.

Tailpiece: Elizabeth Magie patented The Landord’s Game in 1904 “to demonstrate that an economy that rewards individuals is better than one where monopolies hold all the wealth" and could be played with either monopolistic or anti-monopolistic rules. Ironically, the former turned out to be more popular and are the basis of the Monopoly board game since 1935. The market for board games, though, is fragmented and competitive.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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