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Standing up to Big Tech

First released in 1995 as part of an add-on package for Windows 95, the IE browser was the gateway to the internet for a majority of those (95% of users) introduced to personal computers in the early 2000s.

Towards the middle of this year, Microsoft retired its 27-year-old web browser Internet Explorer (IE) to make way for the new generation browser Edge. First released in 1995 as part of an add-on package for Windows 95, the IE browser was the gateway to the internet for a majority of those (95% of users) introduced to personal computers in the early 2000s. Since the advent of mobile computing, a paradigm shift has taken place in terms of internet access — from mobile browsers to apps and widgets.

The farewell given to IE has implications far beyond nostalgia. For starters, the act of bundling Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system (OS) had called into question the notions of monopoly, fair trade and the consumer’s rights to make choices, vis-a-vis the Big Tech industry back in the noughties. The US Vs Microsoft Corp antitrust case involved the American government accusing Microsoft of illegally maintaining its monopolistic stronghold in the PC market. The government said Microsoft had done this through legal and technical limitations that it placed on PC manufacturers as well as end users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use browsers like Netscape Navigator and application software development platforms like Java, originally developed at Sun Microsystems.

Plaintiffs had alleged that coupling Microsoft’s browser with the OS ensured that every user had a copy of IE, which restricted the market for competing firms in the browser space. There were also concerns regarding whether Microsoft had manipulated its application programming interfaces (or APIs) to favour IE over third party browsers. Two decades on, the concerns are no longer purely technical, but pertain to privacy, data protection, digital identities and targeted advertising, mainly in the form of cookies.

Over the last one year, we have seen how major websites have begun displaying cookie consent pop-ups on the home page. The system works by displaying a cookie banner or a pop-up whenever a user visits a web portal, while giving them the option to accept, reject or modify the cookie preferences. It’s a way of assuring the consumer of protecting his or her privacy rights by giving them an option to refuse if a company wants to collect, store and use data pertaining to their browsing habits (which is what cookies do).

There is a sea change in the approach adopted by Big Tech companies and their customers today. A major chunk of the credit must be attributed to the tightening of legislations in regions such as the EU and the US where questions regarding privacy have found some of the biggest stakeholders in the industry fumbling for answers. Six years ago, the European Union published The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a legislation on data protection and privacy in the EU and the European Economic Area. Although the US doesn’t need consent for cookies, a federal law mandates restrictions on use of cookies under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law regulates activities of web portals as well as e-services that are aimed at children under 13 years old.

Regulations aside, there are browsers today, which promise protection against tracking, surveillance, and censorship. Apart from barring ads and third party trackers from following users, such browsers claim to prevent someone watching one’s connection and knowing what websites he or she visits. India has also come a long way, vis-a-vis aspects such as personal data protection and privacy — the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 had also been introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2019. While the legislation is yet to come into force, it remains to be seen whether the lawmakers pitching for citizens can enforce the same stringent EU and US-like mandates for data protection and privacy, right here in India.

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