By Souma Das, Managing Director, Teradata India
Like how classic colonialism functioned many years back, digital colonialism is rooted in the design of the technology ecosystem. Today, digital infrastructure, starting from data servers to optical fibres, from chips to mobile form factors, are taking on the same roles as the railways and waterways of a colonised world.
Global, multinational technology corporations use proprietary hardware, software, corporate clouds, centralised internet servers to process data and provide ‘ready-to-consume’ content and services to users around the globe.
Countries such as India, are often overwhelmed by these readily available services and technology and don’t even try to develop indigenous technologies that can compete with the tech giants of the world. Today, control over how technology works in the form of trademarks and patents, form the foundation of digital colonialism.
Big-tech western companies are colonising the digital economy. Their products are spreading and posing a threat to local industries. At the same time, spreading philosophies of what a digital society should look like, which have captivated local audiences.
Big tech companies have developed standards and technologies, penetrated deeper into the local markets, managed large footprints globally and achieved economies of scale and market presence. They have also built brand loyalty among both consumers and service providers which cannot be matched by domestic manufacturers.
About 97 per cent of telecom equipment used in India is imported. In 2018 India imported about $21 billion worth of telecom equipment, up from $16.2 billion in 2017, even after the government’s Make in India push. This is because most of the equipment that is imported has been manufactured and patented by multinationals, which are being assembled and marketed in the country under the same programme.
If a company like Corning, which manufactures Gorilla Glass that has been included in over five billion devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, wearables; can patent and license its product out to 40 different OEM across the world, why can’t Indian manufacturers do the same?
The challenge lies in IPR. While India adheres to Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, the annual IP index released by the United States Chamber of Commerce (USCC) ranks India as 37 out of 38 countries, for its intellectual property rights environment. And the main reason for this is that the patent protection in India remains outside of international best practices and the laws have not been framed according to India’s technological and social status.
Challenging monopolistic tech
However, around the world, there is a growing movement to challenge the technological design of the digital society, changing it from one that concentrates wealth and power to the one that brings power to all. For example, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its recommendation on promoting local telecom equipment manufacturing, has suggested that India should aim to achieve the objective of ‘net-zero’ imports of telecommunications equipment by 2022 and create an initial corpus of Rs 1,000 crore for promoting indigenous research, innovation, standardisation, design testing, certification and manufacturing.
Having said that, homegrown companies have taken IPR seriously and are now delivering to the world. For example, a Bengaluru-based company’s transmission products for both 4G LTE and GPON are now on par with offerings from MNCs. The company has hundreds of patents in the US, EU and India and exports to 70 countries. Similarly, another Bangalore-based award winning, patented Software Defined Radio SDR platform company, has recently unveiled its series of Software Defined Radio (SDR) chipsets with over 27 patents, that are optimised to deliver better battery life in mobiles.
Apart from IPR, India has taken a stand in other areas of Digital Colonisation, for example, in the internet space, Facebook was forced to cancel its “Free Basics” programme that gave the social media giant control over the Internet experience on mobile phones. Indians protested that the service deepened Facebook’s monopoly power and subjected them censorship and surveillance.
Today in India, multinational telecom companies like Vodafone, that has the maximum market share is also now being threatened by players like homegrown Reliance Jio, which is quickly expanding in the broadband and LTE space with more competitive tariffs and free data packs.
As people across the globe gain access to the most sophisticated personal technology, the smartphone, a new generation of developers and creators are emerging. The next generation of technologies, produced outside the tech giants, are aiming to challenge digital colonialism with Intellectual Property and stop the current direction of technology architecture that restricts creativity rather than enabling it and which encourages consumption and centralises power.