V Prajapati //

Now that the major business deal which saw the world’s largest social media platform Facebook invest 5.7 billion dollars for a 9.9% minority stake in India’s largest telecommunication player, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, owned by India’s biggest conglomerate Mukesh Ambani, there is hardly any doubt that our data’s security is rendered way more unsecure than ever! The deal counts as the largest foreign direct investment in the Indian technology sector. The tie-up with one of the biggest strategic partners is nothing short of a golden deal for Reliance as it will help the company take a huge leap towards becoming a zero net debt company by March 2021. Not just this, the ambition of digitization of everyday transactions at the grocery shops through tie-up between JioMart and Whatsapp will soon be a reality.

Differing Outlook On Data

Both the giants are poles apart when it comes to key issues such as collection, storage and sharing of a user’s data with the security agencies. While Jio’s Ambani vehemently supports that data is the ‘new wealth’ and that Indian data be owned and controlled by Indian people and not by global corporations, yet he surprisingly struck a warmer tone as he welcomed a “friend” of the Indian people, his newest partner with unrivalled expertise in analyzing and monetizing customers’ data: Facebook. How did the differences come to be reconciled? Doesn’t it prima facie put a murky picture?

While Ambani’s Jio has so far been of the view that on account of data being the ‘new oil’, it must be collected and owned by Indians, Facebook on the other hand has been against ownership and trade of data. The former also favors enabling Indian Govt. to trace encrypted unlike Facebook which opposes Govt’s demand for traceability as it violates the user’s privacy. On the question of usage of data by the law enforcement agencies too, they differ widely. As opposed to Jio’s stance that India’s security agencies should have full access to data as well as decryption keys, Facebook says that it is not obliged to do share data with the agencies due to legislative vacuum or absence of a local law mandating the company to do so. In the presence of such wide disagreements, being able to strike a mega deal smacks of something rot i.e. an underhand deal. How did the differences vanish? Was there a motive greater than the differences which made them give up on their outlook?

The differences surfaced on 23rd of April 2020 when the spokesperson of respective companies exchanged their views on Centre’s demand that the data of Indians be stored in India. Last year, too, Reliance Jio has had told the TRAI that all OTT (over-the-top) platforms must give full data access – including decryption keys – to the Indian law enforcement authorities. On the other hand, Facebook in its statement told the Supreme Court of India that it wasn’t mandated by any law to share data and decryption keys with Indian Government.  Last year, it had even declined to sharing the origin of the messages to the Govt. citing end-to-end encryption. After the signing up of such a deal, questions on co-existence of the two in the presence of crucial differences are popping up. Economic Times quoting an insider recently wrote that “these issues are separate from the deal, which is purely commercial. No policy conflict has come in the way of moulding the deal“. Anshuman Thakur, Reliance’s strategic head was quoted by ET saying that Facebook and Jio were independent entities and that there would be areas where the two would collaborate in, but there would also be areas where the two won’t potentially agree with each other. It is noteworthy that Reliance Jio has been attacking Whatsapp for obvious reasons and its spokesperson has announced that the company won’t be toning down post the deal. ET also quoted a top bureaucrat stating that ‘Facebook is unlikely to change its stance’ on the above contentious issues, even though a deal has been struck by them. That these differences may be superficial and only for public consumption, but, in reality the compromise on user’s privacy has already happened is the main concern being flagged by the users.

Will the Indians ever subscribe to such commodification of data and breach of privacy? No, they would never. Those who are aware of the intrusive and draconian consequences in the long run must be wary of it and raise an alarm!

Facebook’s Past: Prioritization Of Revenue Over User’s Integrity And Privacy

Facebook’s righteous stand of protecting data and user’s privacy as stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, is nothing short of a gimmick! The company’s past is blotted with the condemnable instances such as tracing, leaking and trading of user’s data. Only a week ago, the social media giant came up with the feature of Off-Facebook activity to keep a track of user’s activity when she is not operating Facebook! The tainted Cambridge Analytica Scam (2018) where Facebook exposed data of upto 87 billion users which eventually came to be used for Trump’s election campaign, the 2019 leak through unprotected databases which exposed the phone numbers linked to 419 million user accounts linked to their Facebook account IDs and the illegal harvesting of data of 1.5 million users (2019) without their knowledge or consent when they opened their accounts only goes on to reaffirm that the company has been putting up the façade of being ‘privacy-friendly’. In one of the cases, Facebook had admittedly exposed passwords of hundreds of millions of users by storing them in a readable format within its internal data storage systems which were searchable by employees! Thus, the scams which have had a massive chilling effect on the right to privacy, an integral arm of the right to life and liberty! The company’s history is enriched by instances where it has leveraged user data as a ‘currency’ and traded where commercial advantage was perceived. The so-called network-friendly giants pose a huge risk as they continue to conceive ways in which they can commercialize user information in a clandestine way to reap in revenue.

In light of Facebook’s dark history of compromising on user privacy, it becomes important to read between the lines of the freshly signed deal between the two conglomerates. Even while the Reliance and Facebook officials insist that there is no such data-sharing agreement on the cards, it doesn’t preclude such an option and nobody can comment on how it may pan out in the coming months and years. The deal is tight lipped about the inevitable and inherent give and take of data involved in the Jio-Mart project. By way of the commercial agreement, Facebook would end up getting deeper and richer data on the consumption patterns of Indian customers thereby providing it an intense and localized insight and eventually helping it stack revenue through its advertisement platform! By gaining an important ally in Mr. Ambani, the social media giant would find it easier to navigate through India’s legal and regulatory landscape which previously was mostly impenetrable for it. Investment in Jio, a company run by Mukesh Ambani who shares intricate ties with the ruling dispensation, has undoubtedly provided a bit of muscle to FB as working with the Govt. would be way more smoother. After all, who doesn’t know the proximity of Mukesh Ambani with Narendra Modi, the PM? It is Mukesh Ambani on the top of the list of those big capitalists who finances the fascist campaign of Narendra Modi. And make no mistake. While Bhakts cheer him up, he himself is the personal cheer leader of Mukesh Ambani.                  

All of this should definitely raise eyebrows of the regulatory authorities like TRAI, CCI etc. who should examine the potential side effects of this deal upon the Indian ecosystem and privacy issues for the Indian consumers. ET’s technology journalist rightly pointed out the concern flagged by India’s Competition Review Committee which stated that ‘control over data is a factor to be considered for determining the dominant position of any enterprise’ and that any ‘most favored nation’ kind of agreements can have anti-competitive effects, seeking to facilitate a cartel’. The deal carries the immense potential of concentrating the valuable data of world’s second most populous democracy and monopolizing revenue in the hands of giants such as these, thereby denying users any alternative and leaving them with the sole option of sacrificing their privacy. With fascist powers at the helm of affairs sharing close ties with capitalist giants dealing with user data at a massive scale, the reality of an even more stronger surveillance state is drawing closer day by day!

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 1/ May ’20)

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