Unprecedented and unexpected events often lead to systemic and permanent changes: India has over 1.3 billion people in lock-down, and work from home protocols have been imposed. Fear of human contact as well as of contact with surfaces touched by others is rife. There is uncertainty about who is infected with COVID-19, and worry about its spread from one region to another via migration. There is unavailability and unwillingness to engage socially. Governments have had to react to the COVID-19 pandemic with urgency. Shifts are expected in both the adoption of technology, as well as the government’s approach to technology policy as it rushes to contain the spread.
- Wider adoption of Internet services: With over 500 million Internet users and over 660 million broadband connections, India has the second largest number of Internet users in the world. Most are prepaid and on mobile in a hyper-competitive telecom environment. India already has the cheapest Internet access in the world, at around $0.1 (₹7) per GB wireless data, trending down. Average Wireless Data Usage per wireless data subscriber per month is 10.37 GB. Many monthly mobile plans offer 1GB per day, and despite that, broadband users are upgrading plans.
- Video conferencing on the rise: With employees unable to step out, video conferencing for both work and social engagements is on the rise: Zoom parties have begun to take place, seasoned Internet users are discovering new video-meeting apps. While meetings will eventually return, this trend will be here to stay. Internet exchanges are seeing higher traffic during the day, especially during working hours.
- Streaming services will see more users, usage and regulation: Telecom operators have had to ask streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to reduce their bit rate, in order to lower the stress on networks, and many in the entertainment industry have conceded to this demand. Some, like EROS Now, are using this opportunity to offer free streaming. It’s likely that we will see an increased adoption of streaming services going forward, and some users will convert to paying customers. From a policy perspective, increased adoption will lead to greater demands from the Indian government to regulate content on streaming services, either through self-regulation or government regulation.
- Demand for spectrum to meet increasing demand: Since India has a mostly wireless Internet market —around 96-98% of Internet connections are wireless —, increased adoption of video streaming and video conferencing has led to stress on telecom operators. They have already seen a 20% (and rising) increase in demand, and have sought more spectrum from the Indian government.
- Resumed push for Zero Rating: Telecom operators have used the current situation to push for zero rating essential websites — that certain select sites will not count towards data usage, nor be charged access services for. Such practices had been banned by the telecom regulatory authority of India, and frankly, aren’t even necessary given alternatives and the low cost of Internet access in India — the cheapest in the world.
Emergence of e-commerce deliveries as an essential service: Given the relentless targeting of e-commerce companies by various lobbies, much of it targeted against Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, the lockdown in India has led to a legitimisation of e-commerce services in India as essential services. Circulars have been issued by various central government ministries, as well as local authorities, to allow e-commerce service providers to deliver essential goods. This is a moment of validation for the e-commerce industry, as well as food and grocery delivery services, and does for them what demonetisation did for digital payments.
- Digital payments and its opportunism: While e-commerce companies are working with authorities to enable availability of essential services, the digital payments industry, having benefited the most from demonetisation, is trying to, er, cash in on this crisis in a distasteful manner. Social media campaigns involve those from payments industry, in some cases, with children participating, saying “Payment karna hai, digital karo, safe raho”, that one should stay safe by paying digitally. Sports persons and government officials, too, are involved in this opportunistic endeavour.
- Newspapers in panic? While the payments industry is being opportunistic, the newspaper industry seems to be panicking: the Economic Times has run stories on newspapers being safe, and not being vectors COVID-19. The Times Group has sent a legal notice to The Print for an article which suggested that COVID-19 can potentially spread through newspapers as well. Indian Express has made access to it e-paper free. And industry bigwigs are running a social media campaign saying that they miss their printed newspaper. Meanwhile, PDFs of newspapers are circulating on Whatsapp. Print is where the money gets made, so this is not surprising, but weeks without printed newspapers could mean the breaking of a habit for some.
- Technology platforms and the struggle to deal with misinformation: The amount of misinformation spreading about COVID-19 has reached planet scale, and platforms are struggling to deal with it, especially given the lack of human moderation (as contracted content moderators have limited access to systems from home). There has never been a bigger showcase for the lack of efficacy of Artificial Intelligence to understand context than this. Governments are pushing platforms to take action, and could potentially hold them liable under these circumstances. Actions taken now by platforms, as well as against platforms by governments, will set precedence, especially since the Indian government wants proactive monitoring and filtering of content.
- Privacy, necessity and proportionality: Is it necessary and proportionate when homes are marked with stickers to indicate the address, who lives there, and the fact that that house is under quarantine? What about when those details are photographed and shared on social media and messaging services? Is it necessary and proportionate when lists are made by governments and civic bodies, with personal details of those infected and/or quarantined? What about when that list is published online and shared on social media and messaging apps? What about when that same data is used to create a map of addresses with infected people, and their details? What about when people are literally stamped with “Under Quarantine” to promote surveillance by citizens? Will the idea that privacy is a fundamental right, and violations of privacy by the state must meet the necessity and proportionality test — that all other alternatives have been exhausted — survive the COVID-19 outbreak?
- Surveillance tech: Governments around the world are turning towards surveilling quarantined people using technology in order to keep a tab on their movements, especially from telecom operators and online service providers, for location data for those in quarantine, and for data on those who the infected may have been in contact with, before detection. Hong Kong is using electronic wristbands to enforce the quarantine. In India, the government is building apps to track COVID-19 infection paths, which aim to alert users who come in contact with people diagnosed with or at risk to have contracted COVID-19. The Karnataka government is tracking phones of people placed under quarantine, while the Tamil Nadu government is relying on geofencing. Mumbai’s civic body has asked the police to track movements of international travellers through their GPS location. Amid all this, the Department of Science and Technology has invited proposals and has set up a task force for building surveillance, AI and IoT tools for combating COVID-19.
- Linking databases together: NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), which intends to link multiple public and private databases together, is expected to be launched soon. In the first phase, 21 databases, including mobile, Banking, Airlines, SEBI (stock market) and Railways will be linked. In Phase 2, over 900 public and private databases will be linked. When a government wants to keep tabs on a large number of users, this is probably the only way. NATGRID isn’t launched yet, but when it is, it might find more justification than previously considered, and more use cases than earlier imagined. Database access for NATGRID will be available to various investigating agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, R&AW, CBI, DRI, FIU, CBDT, CBEC, DGCEI and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).
- Facial recognition vs fingerprint authentication: While facial recognition services haven’t been rolled out at scale in India, various police departments have experimented with it. Facial recognition has been rolled out at airports, and by private entities such as tea shop chains like Chaayos and Chai Point. Given that subsidy delivery currently relies on fingerprint authentication, the COVID-19 pandemic creates grounds for contactless authentication such as facial recognition.
- Usage of drones for surveillance: Drones, in some cities, are being used for surveillance to ensure that the current curfew is not violated. Drones allow the police to surveill and document, in a low risk manner. In cities like Chennai, they are being used to disinfect areas. Expect that police will place more orders for drones going forward, and some hazardous tasks will be automated.
- Demand for private information from companies: The European Commission has asked telecom operators for anonymised telecom metadata. In India, there has been a strong push for access to Non-Personal Data (aggregated or anonymised data), and this unprecedented situation creates a justification for nationalisation of private company data, especially when it comes to health related information. The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (not yet passed into law) enables India to acquire non-personal data (aggregate or anonymised) for the “delivery of services or formulation of evidence-based policies”, from private entities, and we might see greater demand for this data, to enable swifter government responses.
- Supply chains: Post the COVID-19 crisis, global ventures will look to de-risk supply chains by expanding manufacturing to other countries. An opportunity exists for India to create the right environment for investment in manufacturing in India, which it failed to do during the US-Huawei stand-off.