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COVID-19 and Role of Global Mega Corporations

Brig. Ashish Chhibbar is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 03, 2020

    COVID-19 as a pandemic has literally taken the world by storm. Never before in recent history has the globe been more physically disconnected and isolated. What started as a trickle in China turned into a flood in that country before spreading to the rest of the world, with the worse yet to be over. Thanks to mega corporations and cyberspace, the global community has been able to take several timely measures and has saved innumerable lives. The instant global communication across a wide variety of formats like text, voice, video and documents has made it extremely easy for a cross-section of society ranging from common individuals to scientific communities and nations to interact and collaborate at an unprecedented scale.

    On March 15, 2020, the Prime Minister held a video conference with the leaders /representatives of all member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to brainstorm ways and means to tackle the pandemic. This novel way of sharing ideas amongst leaders on combating a common threat was widely appreciated. It also subsequently resulted in the extraordinary virtual summit of G20 leaders on March 26, 2020.

    What should be the role of mega global corporations in times of such crisis is the moot question which needs to be deliberated upon. This is the time to have a relook at the role of new-age mega corporations which have deep pockets, operate globally, have access to unprecedented data of common people of different nationalities, and possess the best of human skillsets and new-age tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and blockchain.

    Most business schools profess that the only purpose of a business entity is to grow and generate maximum profits for the shareholders. All activities, therefore, need to focus on product, customer and net profit/returns. Politics and governance are best left to the political class and the bureaucracy. By and large, the approach of a business entity towards government is reactive, i.e., act only when asked to by the relevant authority.

    Cyberspace as a domain is very unique. Not only does it span the entire globe, but being an artificial resource can rapidly grow or shrink. What is also distinct is that much of it is owned and managed by global mega corporations. In fact, mega global corporations like Facebook and Google have more knowledge about any country’s citizens than their own government. So, in a knowledge-based world where data can provide deep insights which can help prevent the spread of disease and also empower governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), should the mega corporations solely focus on growth and profits or take a more proactive approach in collaborating with the nations in combating common global threats? Role of Facebook in the current COVID-19 pandemic is briefly presented here to offer insight to the readers.

    Facebook is the world’s most popular social media company with 2.9 billion people using one or more of its products (including WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger). India has 260 million active Facebook users and has the largest user base in the world, followed by the United States with a user base of 160 million. In 2019, Facebook had a revenue of US$ 70.7 billion with advertising being the largest contributor towards its revenue. Its average revenue per user in 2019 was US$ 29.25.1 Thus, India contributed revenue worth US$ 7.605 billion to Facebook in 2019. This is approximately Rs. 57,334 Crore.

    Spread of fake news and rumour mongering specially on social media platforms has been a major problem in the country during the current pandemic. On March 31, 2020, the Supreme Court of India finally directed the Union government to set up a portal to curb the spread of fake news in the country.2 The Maharashtra cyber police has also filed 36 FIRs recently against rumour mongers and perpetrators of fake and misleading news.3 This leads to the question, how can Facebook help in combating the spread of fake news in the country?

    Having a central COVID-19 information centre on the home screen definitely helps the user in getting authentic information and staying away from fake news and rumour mongers. One of the major challenges facing the government and law enforcement agencies (LEAs) is the end-to-end encryption of messages, voice and video chats as well as the non-traceability of messages. The easier problem to solve amongst the two is to ensure traceability of messages. It is possible to maintain end-to-end encryption of messages as well as trace each and every message/post as it gets uploaded on the Facebook platform (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger). By attributing the ownership of each message as it is generated, modified or transmitted, Facebook can promote a sense of responsibility amongst the users which will definitely decrease the spread of fake and malicious messages.

    Another problem facing the cyberspace is anonymity. Each user can generate multiple accounts using fictitious unverifiable information. Having more user accounts benefits the social media companies as they have a direct bearing on advertising revenues. The US Joint Publication 3-12, Cyberspace Operations, describes cyberspace as comprising of three layers, i.e., the physical, logical and cyber-persona.4 The physical layer comprises of all the hardware elements like switches, cables, computers, mobiles, routers, etc., while the logical layer comprises of the software portion or various operating systems and applications that are used to store, modify, analyse, move and destroy information. The cyber-persona layer consists of various user accounts which provides access to social media or other platforms and their relations with one another. Facebook is in a unique position to maintain a cyber-persona relationship of its users and is capable to predict the number of multiple accounts being operated by an individual. This sensitive information should be proactively shared with the concerned governments and LEAs, especially cases flagged by the Facebook.

    Facebook is also capable of ascertaining the gathering of people in large numbers in real time. This information when proactively shared with the police authorities can help in curbing the spread of disease under current conditions. Similarly, machine learning can be utilised to predict hot spots and future outbreak of infections so that timely mitigating strategies can be adopted. There are innumerable ways and means through which the new-age mega corporations can assist governments and other agencies in tackling pandemics like COVID-19.

    Another issue which needs to be flagged is the response of mega corporations to governments and LEAs of countries other than their country of origin. It has been observed that mega corporations generally have a formal and somewhat defensive response when dealing with other countries. It is quite evident that as major players, majority owners of global cyberspace domain and custodians of a large number of citizen’s personal data, these companies are important stakeholders in the nation’s geopolitical and geostrategic landscape.

    Most of the measures elucidated above, however, do not come easy and cheap. There is a cost in terms of skilled manpower and resources which mega corporations would need to invest in order to reap the dividends of massive data being generated by account holders in real time. Investments in such collaborative and proactive measures between mega corporations and nations would definitely bring down profits in the short term.  However, the goodwill generated and lives saved would more than make up for the minuscule drop in profits.

    The steps taken by Facebook, be it the launch of a COVID-19 information centre or using AI for content moderation, in support of the ongoing global effort against the pandemic, are just not enough given the size of the company and its capabilities. Much more is expected and demanded of Facebook, especially in a country like India, which has its largest subscriber base.

    COVID-19 thus presents a unique opportunity to the global new-age mega corporations to up their game and showcase their innovativeness and resourcefulness. The world appears ready for new players in the fight against common global threats. The question is: Are the mega corporations ready? The time to act is now.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.