Why Atmanirbhar Digital India Foundation is a bad idea for Indian Tech industry

Aatmanirbhar Digital India Foundation (ADIF) seems to be formed on the basis of an idea and intention of lobbying the government of India to regulate digital technology space for the big tech companies.

By Srikanth Peddibhotla  Published on  24 Jan 2021 7:24 AM GMT
Why Atmanirbhar Digital India Foundation is a bad idea for Indian Tech industry

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a tribal village in an unknown part of the world. It was a simple community that lived on fishing in a nearby stream. They had primitive tools like spears to catch the fishes, so they could only catch a few fishes every day. After satisfying their hunger, they managed to sell whatever little was left to nearby villages or tourists who passed by and bought other things with that money.

One fine day, a young traveller from some distant village came visiting this village. He had invented a machine that would increase the catch using less effort. He showed the machine to some villagers. Some of them liked the idea, leased that machine, started catching more fishes, and making more money. Gradually, more fishermen of that village bought the machine and the entire village became rich. Along with them, the inventor also made tons of money through rents on the machine or profit-sharing.

This was the beginning of globalization as we understand it today.

After a few years of doing great business, some fishermen got wary of the monopoly and huge profits being made by the inventor, so they formed a self-interest group to lobby for laws to regulate the use of the machine itself. And that was the last we heard about that village as it went through a slow and excruciating death because that regulation discouraged any further innovation in the fishing business.

Aatmanirbhar Digital India Foundation (ADIF) seems to be formed on the basis of a similar idea and intention of lobbying the government of India to regulate digital technology space for the big tech companies.

Being Atma Nirbhar is a good idea, but not at the cost of killing innovation and globalization. To be honest, we must also acknowledge the fact that the members of this group made or are making millions and billions by using the products and services developed by the same big tech companies like operating systems, office suites (sometimes even using pirated versions), laptops, phones and computers, social media for digital marketing, wireless and wired Internet infrastructure, etc. There is a saying in Hindi "Jis thali mein khate ho, us thali mein ched nahi karna chahiye" (Don't cut the hands that feed you). ADIF is trying to do just that.

One way to reduce monopolies and create a balanced market is to create more and better products and services. Creating regulatory frameworks that discriminate or make innovation difficult in general will have totally opposite consequences for everybody. Everybody will lose and nobody will gain.

I'd have loved to back ADIF if and only if the path taken by the group to become Aatma Nirbhar was to join their resources to invest in developing better and competing products like a new phone OS with a new app store or a new social media. However, we must also understand that even if they succeed in creating better products and services to keep the monopolies in check, eventually, they themselves will become what they are fighting against today, i.e. yet another equally big power that controls the market. What is the guarantee they will not? Heck, every capitalist wants to get the most bang for the buck invested and will squeeze out every last drop out of the market. Otherwise, they are really social workers.

By taking the easy and short cut approach of lobbying for regulation they are also sending out a wrong signal to the Indian tech community and industry that we neither have the capital nor the intellect to compete with the big tech and that we are satisfied with use of petty politics and political power to win this market.

"We can't let foreign companies dictate how we do business," was a popular quote from one of its members. By now, all of us have become smart enough to understand and realize that there is a very thin line between a desi and videsi company. It just takes one M&A or one investment to convert a desi Flipkart (although registered in Singapore) into a videsi Walmart. I'd advise ADIF to avoid this nationality-based politics, because you never know when you will find yourself isolated on the other side of the wall you just helped build. Digital economy knows no boundaries.

Having said that, I do agree that the laws of the land that govern us must continuously evolve to catch up to the disruptive changes and innovations happening in technology and technology-backed services, but this change be better lobbied by the end-users, the common man, the voter, the taxpayer, politician, not by a bunch of capitalist cry babies who fear losing their share of the bigger pie to these big tech companies. Of course, they also are common men, voters and taxpayers, but their conflict of interest is so obvious here that it reduces the credibility of such initiatives.

Earlier, I mentioned that ADIF building competing products and services also have the risk of becoming yet another big power in the market. Factually and historically speaking, any form of centralized power has a high potential and probability of being misused to control the market. So, the only real way to solve this problem is to decentralize the power by inverting the power equation from top-down to bottoms up.

I do agree that the only way to break up the concentrated power of tech giants is to unite but in a different way, involving all stakeholders and with an intention of decentralizing the power.

For example, the cab drivers could unite to form an association which then hires a software company to design, build, and operate an Uber/Ola-like city cab service where payments are made directly to the driver's UPI by the passengers and the association pays the service provider monthly fee collected from drivers for their service QoS and SLAs.

Build a new phone OS and an app store that is based on open-source software like OpenEmbedded.

Or build an open-source decentralized social media network that shares the revenues earned from advertisers directly with the users. Today, social media companies are making money out of the users' screen time. Instead, shouldn't it be the users who get paid for the screen time spent on consuming the content and advertisements or selling their personal data to potential advertisers?

The real threat to India is not only the monopolies of few big tech companies but also the naive and short-sighted unionized politics being played by a handful of capitalists who suddenly woke up to the harsh reality that they were going to lose money because of change in the Play store revenue sharing policy. The input costs to any business always change and that cannot be solved by petty politics, but only by pledging more capital on innovation and ideas. Forming unions to protect interests is a very leftist ideology that should be selectively applied only to certain labor-intensive sectors, definitely not where innovation is the key to success.

A message from the author - Options expressed in this article are my personal thoughts and beliefs, and are not influenced by any company, organization or my employer in any manner whatsoever. I am a freethinker.

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