Centre for Internet & Society

The world’s oldest networked infrastructure, money, is increasingly dematerialising and fusing with the world’s latest networked infrastructure, the Internet.

The article was published in the Economic Times on June 10, 2018.

As the network effects compound, disruptive acceleration hurtle us towards financial utopia, or dystopia. Our fate depends on what we get right and what we get wrong with the law, code and architecture, and the market.

The Internet, unfortunately, has completely transformed from how it was first architected. From a federated, generative network based on free software and open standards, into a centralised, environment with an increasing dependency on proprietary technologies.

In countries like Myanmar, some citizens misconstrue a single social media website, Facebook, for the internet, according to LirneAsia research. India is another market where Facebook could still get its brand mistaken for access itself by some users coming online. This is Facebook put so many resources into the battle over Basics, in the run-up to India’s network neutrality regulation. an odd corporation.

On hand, its business model is what some term surveillance capitalism. On the other hand, by acquiring WhatsApp and by keeping end-toend (E2E) encryption “on”, it has ensured that one and a half billion users can concretely exercise their right to privacy. At the time of the acquisition, WhatsApp founders believed Facebook’s promise that it would never compromise on their high standards of privacy and security. But 18 months later, Facebook started harvesting data and diluting E2E.

In April this year, my colleague Ayush Rathi and I wrote in Asia Times that WhatsApp no longer deletes multimedia on download but continues to store it on its servers. Theoretically, using the very same mechanism, Facebook could also be retaining encrypted text messages and comprehensive metadata from WhatsApp users indefinitely without making this obvious.

My friend, Srikanth Lakshmanan, founder of the CashlessConsumer collective, is a keen observer of this space. He says in India, “we are seeing an increasing push towards a bank-led model, thanks to National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) and its control over Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which is also known as the cashless layer of the India Stack.”

NPCI is best understood as a shape shifter. Arundhati Ramanathan puts it best when she says “depending on the time and context, NPCI is a competitor. It is a platform. It is a regulator. It is an industry association. It is a profitable non-profit. It is a rule maker. It is a judge. It is a bystander.”

This results in UPI becoming, what Lakshmanan calls, a NPCI-club-good rather than a new generation digital public good. He also points out that NPCI has an additional challenge of opacity — “it doesn’t provide any metrics on transaction failures, and being a private body, is not subject to proactive or reactive disclosure requirements under the RTI.”

Technically, he says, UPI increases fragility in our financial ecosystem since it “is a centralised data maximisation network where NPCI will always have the superset of data.” Given that NPCI has opted for a bank-led model in India, it is very unlikely that Facebook able to leverage its monopoly the social media market duopoly it shares with in the digital advertising market to become a digital payments monopoly.

However, NCPI and Facebook both share the following traits — one, an insatiable appetite for personal information; two, a fetish for hypercentralisation; three, a marginal commitment to transparency, and four, poor track record as a custodian of consumer trust. The marriage between these like-minded entities has already had a dubious beginning.

Previously, every financial technology wanting direct access to the NPCI infrastructure had to have a tie-up with a bank. But for Facebook and Google, as they are large players, it was decided to introduce a multi-bank model. This was definitely the right thing to do from a competition perspective. But, unfortunately, the marriage between the banks and the internet giant was arranged by NPCI in an opaque process and WhatsApp was exempted from the full NPCI certification process for its beta launch.

Both NPCI and Facebook need urgent regulatory attention. A modern data protection law and a more proactive competition regulator is required for Facebook. The NPCI will hopefully also be subjected to the upcoming data protection law. But it also requires a range of design, policy and governance fixes to ensure greater privacy and security via data minimisation and decentralisation; greater accountability and transparency to the public; separation of powers for better governance and open access policies to prevent anti-competitive behaviour.

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