Speaking the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit in Ahmedabad last week, and addressing the creme of Indian and foreign businessmen and political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Reliance Industries boss Mukesh Ambani, the richest and most powerful corporate leader in the country, made an unexpected and unusual demand to the government. Mr Ambani said that “data is a new oil and new wealth”, and therefore must be “controlled and owned by Indian people — and not by corporates, especially global corporations”.
He added: “Gandhiji led India’s movement against political colonisation. Today, we have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization… For India to succeed in this data driver revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian.”
Brave words that sound as if they are coming from a left-wing radical and not the man who controls a large telecom enterprise. If we examine what is likely and what would remain a challenge for Indian corporates, a more complex picture emerges.
What is more feasible is for Reliance Industries is to roll out its online shopping platform that will take on both Amazon and Walmart Inc’s Flipkart. Reliance plans to take on the world’s largest retailers by combining its Jio telecom service, mobile devices and a vast physical retail network of grocery, electronics and other stores. The Indian conglomerate will join Amazon and Flipkart in aggressively trying to capture a larger share in the world’s fastest-growing major e-commerce market.
Reliance has begun trials of the company’s new e-marketing venture in six cities, including the big metros. It also plans to enlist small neighbourhood shops as delivery centres. It also has long years of experience in getting the government’s support to change policies to benefit it. Last month, India tightened the rules that would disallow foreign-owned online retailers from selling products via companies in which they own equity. These are expected to affect the operations of Amazon as well as its rival Walmart, and are expected to benefit local enterprises such as Reliance.
With its vast monetary resources and managerial skill at its disposal, there seems little reason why the company cannot become a major player in the e-commerce space. The problems arises when we consider “data… which is a new oil and new wealth”, and therefore must be “controlled and owned by Indian people — and not by corporates”. First, it is not clear how this hidden wealth, based on the ordinary person’s life and preferences, can be owned and controlled by such a person. This valuable data is gleaned by sophisticated mathematical algorithms from what the person sees or wants from the Internet. Big Internet giants like Google or Facebook offer their services for free and make money by offering their findings for a fee to those — whether corporations or governments — who want it either to market their wares or to corner a part of the popular vote during elections.
They consider this information to be very valuable since their profits and influence are based on it, and they would not want competitors to get hold of it. That is the main reason why this is stored in secure servers in their home countries. Google and Facebook are among the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world, more so even than Reliance, and have resisted the Indian government’s attempts to keep the data on Indian users on servers in India, where the government or its agents could access it.
Facebook has been involved in campaigning for the BJP and for Mr Narendra Modi since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and now has an expert team of its executives in India preparing a campaign of news feeds for the BJP to discredit the Opposition parties. Facebook has in recent years supported six right-wing parties around the world.
Bloomberg reports: “In India, the company helped develop the online presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now has more Facebook followers than any other world leader. In the Philippines, it trained the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte, known for encouraging extrajudicial killings, in how to most effectively use the platform. And in Germany it helped the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) win its first Bundestag seats.” Other leaders that Facebook has supported include the Scottish National Party, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, and Poland’s nationalist President Andrzej Duda, who has presided over a crackdown on press freedom in the country.
Bloomberg further adds: “India is arguably Facebook’s most important market, with the nation recently edging out the United States as the company’s biggest… Since his election, Modi’s Facebook followers have risen to 43 million, almost twice Trump’s count. As Modi’s social media reach grew, his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target harassment campaigns against his political rivals.”
Now Google, which is much bigger than Facebook, promises to start searching for political ads and is likely to follow Facebook in a bid to influence politics. Despite his wealth and political influence, Mr Ambani is not likely to outgun Facebook or Google, and hence his concern over “data colonisation”.