Photo: Manjunath Kiran (Getty Images)
I think we can all agree that the chokehold that Amazon wields over the ecommerce landscape is, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. It’s a pain in the ass for the millions of third-party sellers at the mercy of its platform. It’s a pain in the ass for the lawmakers who’ve spent the past year and change desperately trying to wield some sort of congressional power over a tech giant. It’s a pain in the ass for unions, for lawyers, and for the reporters who are stuck writing about it.
This is probably why one country’s government is mulling over the idea of instating a window into the algorithms that keep money flowing into the Amazon machine. As detailed in a new Bloomberg report, the latest draft of India’s proposed national ecommerce policy includes mandated federal access to the “source codes and algorithms” underlying digital behemoths like Amazon—a step that local authorities say will cut down on the “digitally induced biases” that these companies have been proven to have.
The document draft that Bloomberg got ahold of is the latest update to a proposed national policy that’s been roughly two years in the making, and is largely being written to undercut the power that certain tech companies currently hold over India’s ecommerce market. While the country doesn’t hold a candle to the more than $600 billion that Americans spent online by the end of last year, India’s numbers are definitely booming: Over the next twoyears, the local ecommerce sector is expected to be worth more than $71 billion dollars. Over the next six years, that number’s expected to surge to $200 billion.
For the most part, these dollars are controlled by two global companies: Amazon and Flipkart, an India-based online marketplace that was bought out by Walmart for a good $16 billion back in 2018. Respectively, each of these companies controls nearly a third of the country’s overall ecommerce market, according to analyses run last year. Local alternatives, like Paytm Mall or Bigbasket, control less than 5% each.
With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that past drafts of India’s proposed policies were grilled for placing what some called unnecessary levels of scrutiny on foreign startups while giving locally held companies a pass. The latest draft, per Bloomberg’s report, doesn’t play favorites, but does leave the possibility of whether companies like Amazon would have to store their India-centric data on local servers, rather than keeping them on U.S. soil. Whatever data’s held in those servers, in turn, wouldn’t just be subject to India’s somewhat authoritarian tech privacy laws, but would also need to be available to local authorities at a moment’s notice. As Bloomberg details:
E-commerce companies will be required to make data available to the government within 72 hours, which could include information related to national security, taxation and law and order.
The draft policy also said e-commerce platforms would be required to provide to consumers the details of sellers, including phone numbers, customer complaint contacts, email and addresses. For imported goods, the country of origin and value of work done in India should be clearly specified, the policy said.
The issues that this draft brings up aren’t specific to India. In any country that’s wrestling with the “right way” to regulate the tech companies that prove, time an again, to be nigh-inescapable in all of our lives, we keep seeing the question of how much government access is too much.
We can all (probably) agree that third-party sellers on the platform shouldn’t be allowed to sell price-gouged masks or fake coronavirus cures—and some of us might feel comfortable with the feds stepping in to crack down on those deals. But we’ve seen those same authorities try to use their access to these sorts of data streams for increasingly dystopian levels of surveillance that are harder and harder to rationalize. India, in particular, has a pretty burgeoning market among its law enforcement agencies for all manners of surveillance tech to monitor criminals and peaceful protesters alike.
Or to put things another way: In its current state, India’s proposed policies might ease up Amazon’s chokehold over the country’s slew of emarketplaces—but the chokehold over the average citizen’s digital rights will only keep getting tighter.