An interview with Zoho's Chief Evangelist
Welcome to the final part of our privacy and surveillance series. In this five part series, we've summarised a conversation between Zoho's Chief Evangelist, Raju Vegesna and Patrick Moorhead, the founder and Chief Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy. In this final part, they discuss the importance of being aware of digital surveillance and the consequences we'll face in the future because of unchecked data mining practices.
If we're all under constant surveillance, why should we care about it?
It matters because when you consider who's most impacted by surveillance, it's users like us. We're giving away personal and sensitive data about ourselves, our friends, and our families. Kids today are under surveillance from a young age, even before they can comprehend what's going on. We're losing our privacy, and in a way, our freedom. That's what is at stake and that's why it's important to know about it and discuss it.
If we analyse how we got to this point, it all started in the '90s and '00s when Google and Facebook gained rapid popularity, and advertising became the primary business model. Google's success was so massive and impressive that thousands of companies that came after them followed suit and started selling ads. As a result, the last two decades were the lost decades in business models. There was only one way to do business: by selling ads. That was the one thing they knew always made money.
They didn't see the possible consequences of this practice, and without questioning the ethics of it, we've all gotten ourselves in too deep. That's why we should now pause and ask ourselves: as humanity, is this where we want to spend our brain power?
Everyone should ask themselves that. We do that, too. Do we want to spend our corporate intelligence trying to determine the best ways to place ads and how to get people to click on them, or would we rather work toward the betterment of humanity as a whole?
It's a critical question, and it's time we figured out our priorities.
But in the last 20 years, there was nothing to regulate this behaviour. It's only now, after Google and Facebook were brought to court and after British Airways was fined heavily for violating GDPR policies, that it looks like businesses are taking this seriously. Even then, there's more talking than doing.
It all comes back to one word: greed. A lot of companies and investors don't know when to say enough. In our case, we have a simple principle: leave money on the table.
It's acceptable not to take all the money. You can replace money with food to see how much sense this makes. Just because there's food on the table doesn't mean you have to eat it all. Similarly, just because there's money to make in business doesn't mean we need to make it all.
If you get into the 'take-all' mindset, which a lot of companies do, you go down the never-ending path of greed. As we go further down that path, today's most "successful" internet companies will actually break the internet as we know it. This means countries or even states and regions will put up virtual walls to protect their citizens. It'll be a protective measure against companies that have exploited what the internet represents: global connection.
In many ways, these strict protective measures are beneficial, like GDPR in the EU. We need such methods to regulate companies that abuse user data. It's gone so far that you can expect more countries to do similar things like the EU. It'll take a while and it will be stringent at times—to the point of putting up barriers to protect citizens from greedy companies—but it's a way to take control back.
If big companies have to restructure to deal with the pullback, won't they worry about competing Chinese tech companies taking the monopoly?
Every country will possibly do what China has, to an extent. They'll raise barriers and develop their own technological ecosystem instead of relying on foreign companies. This is quite extreme, yes, but so is data mining and abuse.
In the previous episode about sensory surveillance, we mentioned how facial recognition is now easily available at home. It's only a matter of time before that information becomes accessible by governments.
For instance, not too long ago, Amazon introduced Amazon One, and they announced that they use biometric data from your palm to authenticate your identity. This means your biometric data is now with Amazon in the cloud. It's natural for governments to hold biometric data about their citizens, but Amazon is a global tech company. Will governments be comfortable with internet companies having their citizens' personal data? That could indicate that these companies will have more data about citizens than the government itself. Is that okay?
That's why governments will raise barriers, which consequently breaks the current style of the internet.
Recently, in India, Google blocked a popular financial company that handles more than 50% of transactions within the country. Google holds almost 90% of the market share in India, so by blocking those apps from their Play Store, they effectively controlled what the country uses. Of course that created some backlash, which is a good thing. Soon, every country will start doing this.
Bigger countries might build their own ecosystems, but smaller countries will look for allies to work with. So let's say there are five clumps of countries that work together. They'll have small companies and their rate of innovation will be high. But if those innovations don't exist outside of those clumps, they won't make a holistic impact, will they?
As a post-COVID strategy, Zoho has followed transnational localism. That means the ideas are transnational, but the implementation is hyper local.
So if you have innovation in five separate pockets, those ideas will spread across to each other, but how they're executed and implemented will vary vastly based on country, state, or region.
Information sharing is critical and will continue. Even today, Facebook learns a lot from its competition in China, even though they don't have a presence there. But the impact of what they learn and the implementation will be local.
With intellectual property comes global standards. Now to talk to someone from the other side of the world, we use a common format like video or audio. When there are smaller ecosystems, will we even have shared standards?
There are two sides to this. In the tech industry, there's an explosion of innovation and there's consolidation.
With an explosion of innovation, everyone's standards will be different, and when that goes too far, they have to consolidate and agree on common standards. It'll be a constant cycle of going back and forth, and it could take months or it could take decades. However, this competing mentality is good for innovation.
For example, there are 25 million people in Australia, 5 million in New Zealand, and 1.3 billion in India. The scales are so different between these countries—the needs, the economies, and the affordability all vary greatly. A $400 smartphone might be reasonable for us, but it's extravagant in India. That's why we need local companies and systems that make sense to the local audience.
Google recently promised a $40 smartphone in India. If they can pull that off in other countries as well, then people will buy that phone. Local companies will compete with such a proposition, and that's how innovative ideas will flow to other areas. And that competition is great on a global scale.
This has been an informative series of interviews. Do you have any parting thoughts?
Every one of us should ask ourselves, "What is our moral compass?"
Are we spending our energy and intelligence for the good of humanity, or for money?
We ask this internally at Zoho as well. What's the point of being financially profitable when you're morally bankrupt? Unfortunately, a lot of people in today's world don't take morality and ethics seriously enough. It's important to have that conversation with ourselves and then take the right step forward.
With that, we conclude our five-part series on surveillance and data privacy. Here's a recording of this interview, if you'd like to watch it. If you have any questions you'd like to ask Raju, leave them in the comments, and we'll have him answer them as soon as possible. Alternatively, tweet to @rajuv.