If you are reading this right now, let’s just get something out of the way — you are not poor. Just the affordability of English language literacy and access to national news media marks you as belonging to a very small elite group in the country. If you are reading this online, the point is driven home even more. So, when you heard about the CEO of Snapchat (If you are asking SnapWhat, don’t feel crestfallen, you are not “out of it”, you are just not 17) being quoted from a statement he made two years ago, that he is not interested in expanding in poor countries like India, you were obviously riled.
There were many things wrong with the alleged statement that Evan Spiegel made. He betrayed his own ignorance and arrogance, where he was unable to understand the growing consumer base of mobile-based apps in emerging networked countries like India. He also more or less failed to understand that poverty is layered, and while India continues to struggle with poverty, it has a growing population of extremely wealthy and affluent users, who are not only driving global consumption trends but also the key focus of digital growth. His biggest faux pas was to not recognise that in the global information technologies development cycles, there is a huge chance that a large number of his employees and contractors might be located in India, and that Digital India is an undeniable extension of Silicon Valley apps and platforms.
Speigel’s cockiness is actually so common in how digital ecosystems are mapped, that you could almost ignore it because “everybody says it”. It is great that he was called out on his neo-colonial viewpoints. Users from India (and around the world) joined in to not only to protest against his bravado, but also to call for an action that hurts private companies in the one way they recognise — revenue. #BoycottSnapchat has been trending this last week, and millions of people using this visual filtered storytelling app are uninstalling it from their devices. People have been making jokes and criticising Snapchat, leading to a huge dip in the user base of Snapchat.
These moments of digital collective action are admirable and we need more instances where we call out such acts of discrimination and exclusion. We do need to make sure that we do not make Snapchat Enemy No. 1, pretending that the rest of the web is all good. Speigel is profoundly wrong, in his comments or in his defence that his app is “free” to download, which shows that he is not excluding India. However, Speigel cannot be singled out in all of this. Across the digital landscape, countries like India are always trapped in a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, Indian engineers and knowledge workers are being harvested as the cheap labour who “steal global jobs” and on the other, India is always seen as poor, underdeveloped, in need of saving.
This distilling of the Indian landscape, in all its complexity, into these two polarised identities, allows for these tech companies to continue unfair practices which affect both the glamorous white-collar techies and the invisible labours of IT cities. It emphasises the idea that the IT worker, upwardly and geographically mobile, is being offered a path to escape either the country or their context, because they are touched by the economic power of the digital corporation. It also justifies the exploited labour conditions of IT industries, where the story of transformation is presented as an excuse for underpaid overworked production environments.
At the same time, these companies seek to take up state-like responsibilities without the accountability, destroying fundamental media and information rights in the guise of bridging the digital divide. Remember Internet.Org’s attack on #NetNeutrality in their attempt to provide free Internet to the poor. Pay attention to Uber’s continued exploitation of its drivers, refusing to treat them as employees and yet regulating them more than any employer can dare to. Realise that despite our #MakeInIndia campaigns, we have very little investment in creating localised, Indian language digital infrastructure. Notice that the Indian digital scene, far from being start-up friendly, is turning into a monopoly of a handful of telecom companies, which nonchalantly discard the legal apparatus of safeguards. Reflect on how we are building biometric databases like Aadhaar, without any regard for data protection and security, so that
millions of people are compromised through data leaks. All of these different phenomena need to be read along with our outrage at Snapchat. All of these are stern reminders that our act of questioning the digital does not stop at uninstalling an app, but at reorganising our policies and politics of the digital in the country.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.