The Future of Democracy in the Shadow of Big and Emerging Tech: CCG Essay Series

By Shrutanjaya Bhardwaj and Sangh Rakshita

In the past few years, the interplay between technology and democracy has reached a critical juncture. The untrammelled optimism for technology has now been shadowed by rising concerns over the survival of a meaningful democratic society. With the expanding reach of technology platforms, there have been increasing concerns in democratic societies around the world on the impact of such platforms on democracy and human rights. In this context, increasingly there has been focus on policy issues like  the need for an antitrust framework for digital platforms, platform regulation and free speech, the challenges of fake news, impact of misinformation on elections, invasion of privacy of citizens due to the deployment of emerging tech,  and cybersecurity. This has intensified the quest for optimal policy solutions. We, at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi (CCG), believe that a detailed academic exploration of the relationship between democracy, and big and emerging tech will aid our understanding of the current problems, help contextualise them and highlight potential policy and regulatory responses.

Thus, we bring to you this series of essays—written by experts in the domain—in an attempt to collate contemporary scholarly thought on some of the issues that arise in the context of the interaction of democracy, and big and emerging tech. The essay series is publicly available on the CCG website. We have also announced the release of the essay series on Twitter

Our first essay addresses the basic but critical question: What is ‘Big Tech’? Urvashi Aneja & Angelina Chamuah present a conceptual understanding of the phrase. While ‘Big Tech’ refers to a set of companies, it is certainly not a fixed set; companies become part of this set by exhibiting four traits or “conceptual markers” and—as a corollary—would stop being identified in this category if they were to lose any of the four markers. The first marker is that the company runs a data-centric model and has massive access to consumer data which can be leveraged or exploited. The second marker is that ‘Big Tech’ companies have a vast user base and are “multi-sided platforms that demonstrate strong network effects”. The third and fourth markers are the infrastructural and civic roles of these companies respectively, i.e., they not only control critical societal infrastructure (which is often acquired through lobbying efforts and strategic mergers and acquisitions) but also operate “consumer-facing platforms” which enable them to generate consumer dependence and gain huge power over the flow of information among citizens. It is these four markers that collectively define ‘Big Tech’. [U. Aneja and A. Chamuah, What is Big Tech? Four Conceptual Markers]

Since the power held by Big Tech is not only immense but also self-reinforcing, it endangers market competition, often by hindering other players from entering the market. Should competition law respond to this threat? If yes, how? Alok P. Kumar & Manjushree R.M. explore the purpose behind competition law and find that competition law is concerned not only with consumer protection but also—as evident from a conjoint reading of Articles 14 & 39 of the Indian Constitution—with preventing the concentration of wealth and material resources in a few hands. Seen in this light, the law must strive to protect “the competitive process”. But the present legal framework is too obsolete to achieve that aim. Current understanding of concepts such as ‘relevant market’, ‘hypothetical monopolist’ and ‘abuse of dominance’ is hard to apply to Big Tech companies which operate more on data than on money. The solution, it is proposed, lies in having ex ante regulation of Big Tech rather than a system of only subsequent sanctions through a possible code of conduct created after extensive stakeholder consultations. [A.P. Kumar and Manjushree R.M., Data, Democracy and Dominance: Exploring a New Antitrust Framework for Digital Platforms]

Market dominance and data control give an even greater power to Big Tech companies, i.e., control over the flow of information among citizens. Given the vital link between democracy and flow of information, many have called for increased control over social media with a view to checking misinformation. Rahul Narayan explores what these demands might mean for free speech theory. Could it be (as some suggest) that these demands are “a sign that the erstwhile uncritical liberal devotion to free speech was just hypocrisy”? Traditional free speech theory, Narayan argues, is inadequate to deal with the misinformation problem for two reasons. First, it is premised on protecting individual liberty from the authoritarian actions by governments, “not to control a situation where baseless gossip and slander impact the very basis of society.” Second, the core assumption behind traditional theory—i.e., the possibility of an organic marketplace of ideas where falsehood can be exposed by true speech—breaks down in context of modern era misinformation campaigns. Therefore, some regulation is essential to ensure the prevalence of truth. [R. Narayan, Fake News, Free Speech and Democracy]

Jhalak M. Kakkar and Arpitha Desai examine the context of election misinformation and consider possible misinformation regulatory regimes. Appraising the ideas of self-regulation and state-imposed prohibitions, they suggest that the best way forward for democracy is to strike a balance between the two. This can be achieved if the State focuses on regulating algorithmic transparency rather than the content of the speech—social media companies must be asked to demonstrate that their algorithms do not facilitate amplification of propaganda, to move from behavioural advertising to contextual advertising, and to maintain transparency with respect to funding of political advertising on their platforms. [J.M. Kakkar and A. Desai, Voting out Election Misinformation in India: How should we regulate Big Tech?]

Much like fake news challenges the fundamentals of free speech theory, it also challenges the traditional concepts of international humanitarian law. While disinformation fuels aggression by state and non-state actors in myriad ways, it is often hard to establish liability. Shreya Bose formulates the problem as one of causation: “How could we measure the effect of psychological warfare or disinformation campaigns…?” E.g., the cause-effect relationship is critical in tackling the recruitment of youth by terrorist outfits and the ultimate execution of acts of terror. It is important also in determining liability of state actors that commit acts of aggression against other sovereign states, in exercise of what they perceive—based on received misinformation about an incoming attack—as self-defence. The author helps us make sense of this tricky terrain and argues that Big Tech could play an important role in countering propaganda warfare, just as it does in promoting it. [S. Bose, Disinformation Campaigns in the Age of Hybrid Warfare]

The last two pieces focus attention on real-life, concrete applications of technology by the state. Vrinda Bhandari highlights the use of facial recognition technology (‘FRT’) in law enforcement as another area where the state deploys Big Tech in the name of ‘efficiency’. Current deployment of FRT is constitutionally problematic. There is no legal framework governing the use of FRT in law enforcement. Profiling of citizens as ‘habitual protestors’ has no rational nexus to the aim of crime prevention; rather, it chills the exercise of free speech and assembly rights. Further, FRT deployment is wholly disproportionate, not only because of the well-documented inaccuracy and bias-related problems in the technology, but also because—more fundamentally—“[t]reating all citizens as potential criminals is disproportionate and arbitrary” and “creates a risk of stigmatisation”. The risk of mass real-time surveillance adds to the problem. In light of these concerns, the author suggests a complete moratorium on the use of FRT for the time being. [V. Bhandari, Facial Recognition: Why We Should Worry the Use of Big Tech for Law Enforcement

In the last essay of the series, Malavika Prasad presents a case study of the Pune Smart Sanitation Project, a first-of-its-kind urban sanitation programme which pursues the Smart City Mission (‘SCM’). According to the author, the structure of city governance (through Municipalities) that existed even prior to the advent of the SCM violated the constitutional principle of self-governance. This flaw was only aggravated by the SCM which effectively handed over key aspects of city governance to state corporations. The Pune Project is but a manifestation of the undemocratic nature of this governance structure—it assumes without any justification that ‘efficiency’ and ‘optimisation’ are neutral objectives that ought to be pursued. Prasad finds that in the hunt for efficiency, the design of the Pune Project provides only for collection of data pertaining to users/consumers, hence excluding the marginalised who may not get access to the system in the first place owing to existing barriers. “Efficiency is hardly a neutral objective,” says Prasad, and the state’s emphasis on efficiency over inclusion and participation reflects a problematic political choice. [M. Prasad, The IoT-loaded Smart City and its Democratic Discontents]

We hope that readers will find the essays insightful. As ever, we welcome feedback.

This series is supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) and has been published by the National Law University Delhi Press. We are thankful for their support. 

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