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The WhatsApp move to sue the Indian government is a red herring

India is a democracy. Tech corporations are anything but, and they may do well to examine their own motivations before calling into question the decisions of states, especially those navigating the changeable waters of a profoundly diverse nation such as India 

May 27, 2021 / 03:15 PM IST
WhatsApp | Source: Reuters

WhatsApp | Source: Reuters

WhatsApp’s move to challenge the constitutional validity of the government’s requirement that online messaging platforms trace chats in order to locate the ‘originator’ of messages heralds the impending struggle between states and AI corporations who stand to wield an unprecedented degree of influence in a world only too eager to board the AI identity wagon.

While WhatsApp’s attempt to protect its much-lauded USP of ‘end-to-end’ encryption appears reasonable, and its concern for the constitutional rights of Indian citizens well-intentioned, a closer examination of the AI corporate-hood might suggest otherwise.

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Google recently forced one of their AI-ethics researchers to quit after a paper she co-authored exposed the use of biased data to train their language models, data reflecting egregiously regressive attitudes towards gender and race which citizens have worked long to eradicate.

Facebook’s data breaches and their apparent unwillingness to act on early warnings remains problematic. In one instance, Facebook’s refusal to acknowledge a vulnerability identified by a security researcher resulted in the theft of the data of about half a billion users. Further, Facebook’s, and indeed that of the majority of tech companies, usage of citizen data for profit or otherwise remains opaque.

Tech companies, in general, continue to be resistant to requests for transparency and it is anyone’s guess just how private a user’s data is. While user actions are constantly being tracked, recorded , quantified and analysed, AI companies (eg: Amazon Web Services) remain notoriously secretive about the processes that go into their production and supply chains, the logic underlying their systems, the type of data used to train their AI, the massive energy footprint and the enormous consumption of natural resources.

Given the staggering absence of accountability of tech companies and their rather autocratic operational style reflected in the cases mentioned above, WhatsApp’s concern for the rights of Indian citizens appears rather incongruent. India with all its challenges has a well-functioning electoral process that enables its citizens to express their needs, preferences and objections. It is not clear that these affordances are available to employees of tech companies or consumers of tech products. India is a democracy. Tech corporations are anything but, and they may do well to examine their own motivations before calling into question the decisions of states, especially those navigating the changeable waters of a profoundly diverse nation such as India. The idiom “Healer, heal thyself first.” may apply to the present situation.

WhatsApp’s gauntlet before the Indian government represents one small and potentially worrisome step towards the erosion of the sovereignty of states. As states push for rapid AI development across multiple domains of civilian and defense applications and the world hurtles towards an increasingly AI-assisted existence, the prospect of an AI-dominated world looms large. An AI-dominated world would essentially be an AI-Corporation-dominated world because the resources required to develop and deploy power-guzzling AI systems lie primarily with wealthy tech giants such as Google. The use of cloud systems to store vast quantities of both civilian and defense data would make states even more vulnerable to corporate nudging, a predicament made more serious by reliance on foreign Cloud providers.

If democratic states and indeed democracy is to survive it would do well for nations to: a) resist the temptation to place all their intellectual and economic eggs in the AI basket, b) renew their vows to uphold the principles of democracy so as to build deeper ties with their citizens based on mutual trust, and c) work together to encourage tech companies to adopt a more inclusive and evolved standard of engagement with customers, much like the Tatas who have had an illustrious history of both great industry and great service to the community.

The present provocation is an opportunity for India to lead a global effort towards a genuinely AI-empowered world, and as such may well be a blessing in disguise.
Monika Krishan is Senior Fellow (Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence) at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), Kochi. Views are personal.
first published: May 27, 2021 01:45 pm