“I would recommend breaking big tech up,” said former Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan. “These companies are built on the assumption that scale is what matters. It’s hard to see why these companies wouldn’t want to get bigger,” she said, referring to companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Sundararajan also said that these tech companies are becoming “too big to fail” and most promising start ups get folded into one of these big companies. Sundararajan made these remarks at a panel discussion hosted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) here in New Delhi on September 24. The panel also discussed about the importance of access to non-personal data and who should claim ownership of it (see below).

BJP’s Baijayant Panda, also a panellist, countered Sundararajan’s argument by saying that “with the growth of China and the growth of big tech in China, American companies are saying that if you [US government] break us up, or if you impose more onerous regulations on us, you are affecting our ability to compete with the Chinese. So you [US government] need to be fair and promote America, if you want to make America great. Again, if you want America to become the innovation hub in the world, which is taking by China, you’ll have to let us alone, don’t break us up, don’t put us under”.

‘Don’t have a deterministic view on data localisation’: Sundararajan

Sundararajan also said that she hadn’t made her mind on data localisation yet. But, she said that companies like Apple and Amazon have been reaching out to Indians to build up their AI. “Let’s look at AI and Indian languages, right? If we have another one or two years of the same pace at which Siri or an Alexa is interacting with the Indian populace, they would have just built up such powerful AI engines, that no matter what, for the next 50 years, hundred years, you just cannot overtake them,” Sundararajan said.

Panda meanwhile said that Facebook’s Nick Clegg, who met India’s home and IT minister recently, made a strong argument for open and free access to data without insisting on it being localised is the way to go. “But I don’t believe that the verdict is out yet [on data localisation]. Look at what China has done. And we may not like the outcome of that because it fragments the internet. But, you have to also recognise another byproduct of what they have done is that they have created enormous local capacity, they’ve created enormous giant organizations of their own and not to mention have taken the lead in certain areas such as in 5G, and AI,” Panda added.

Who owns our non-personal data?

MediaNama’s founder and editor, Nikhil Pahwa, who was in the audience asked the panel as to who should claim ownership of non-personal data. “As far as I can see whatever’s not personal information is intellectual property of a company. So, how does this play out in the global intellectual property regime if you are forcing companies to do compulsory licensing of their data to any startup that wants it [the data] because that’s essentially what’s been talked about in the context of non-personal data and sharing of data,” said Pahwa.

To that, Sundararajan said that anonymised community data can be of critical value in the future. “There’s a company in Bangalore, which by just harvesting the data of traffic flows developed this global engine, which they are now marketing internationally as one of the most efficient engines for predicting data flows and managing data flows. Now, there is no reason for India to have a stance [on non-personal data] in perpetuity. But, let’s say all my agricultural data which you collect, whereby, you’d probably be able to predict, where’s the water shortage. Where is it that the greens are with productivity is going up? Let’s not forget that community data, anonymised data also has huge value. It will be of critical value in the future,” she added.

She further retorted by arguing, “So, are we saying that we will sign off all this to some random company that just manages to collect this data, and therefore, India and Indians will have no right to use this data? I think that is a very extreme position”.

Panda responded to Pahwa’s question with a refernce to the telecom sector. “Exactly in the same manner that you make the telecom pipes provider, which is their physical property and equivalent of intellectual property, provide equal access to it on anybody that can provides services on it. So, that’s a concept that’s well understood in terms of anti-trust principles. Interestingly though, he concluded by saying, “Now, whether it should be done or not is a different issue”.