Google to Facebook, tech firms leaning on retd IAS officers to deal with Modi govt

© Provided by The Print

New regulations and aggressive changes in the Narendra Modi government’s tech policies are pushing technology companies like Google and Amazon to hire retired IAS officers as public policy experts. Facebook India is the latest example: on Monday, it hired former IAS officer Rajiv Aggarwal as director of public policy.

While the private sector has always looked keenly at retired IAS officers and governments’ policy teams, industry insiders say it’s been a natural progression for technology companies to involve bureaucrats into their operations. Increased scrutiny from the government and complicated regulations have made it critical to hire people who have worked with the Indian government in public policy roles, they add.

“The profile of this kind of job role has really been expanded today,” said Manoj Varghese, a former hiring manager and director at various technology companies, who was also the first person offered a job by Facebook India in 2010 and the first local manager hired in India by Google in 2004. “Civil servants, by nature of their training and experience in policy formulation and implementation, can engage better, faster and more efficiently with the increased number of requests and demands from the government,” he added.

Also read: Modi govt’s new IT rules don’t empower consumers, but expand State power over online content

Hostile markets

If technology companies want to succeed in Indian markets, they need to get along with the Modi government. Amazon was seemingly in hot water in 2020 when Jeff Bezos visited India after pledging to invest another $1 billion in the country, a move that Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal dismissed as “not doing a great favour.” Shortly after, Amazon hired Chetan Krishnaswamy, Google’s director for public policy for India and South Asia and a former journalist, to be its vice president of public policy. Google’s replacement for Chetan is a public policy professional with extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit sectors.

The presence and influence of technology companies in India have grown since the time Varghese worked at Google and Facebook. Audience engagement too has gone up, making it crucial for companies to have public policy positions that navigate India’s plugged-in user base. Last year, Facebook India’s director of public policy, Ankhi Das, had a high-profile exit over reportedly turning a blind eye to hate speech from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians on the social media website. Hate speech is at odds with Facebook’s policy, but India is an important market for the social media company with over 300 million estimated users (even if thousands of them regularly engage in hate speech.)

Big Tech is facing pushback from governments globally, from Hungary and Russia to Germany and  the US. In India, they also have to navigate fierce nationalistic sentiments that are easily offended — a lawsuit was once filed against Google for showing Modi’s image in a search result for “most stupid prime minister.”

The government has also publicly criticised technology companies. Former Union Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Facebook was biased against the Modi government, and wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his employees “abusing” Modi. Parliamentary committees have summoned companies like Facebook and Twitter multiple times, most recently for the “misuse of social media/online news platforms.”

The Modi government wants to mandate data localisation, prompting conversations around “data nationalism.” In addition, the government has been passing stringent regulation laws to make technology companies comply with new rules such as the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Speaking to ThePrint, technology analyst and public policy consultant Prasanto K. Roy said new intermediary rules, taxation policies, and changes to e-commerce and FDI rules have also hit firms hard.

“Big Tech has been in government gunsights—including in India—for a while,” Roy said. “Tech companies have been facing a lot of government and regulatory scrutiny, including from the Competition Commission of India.”

Hiring former IAS officers and bureaucrats, therefore, could help Big Tech dodge, or at least deal, with the Modi government’s demands.

Also read: This is how Modi govt’s new rules will regulate digital media and OTT content

Clash of cultures 

Much like corporate communications hiring former journalists, this phenomenon is also not new: tech giants have been hiring former bureaucrats and government officials to act as a link between the private and public sectors. Facebook, for example, hired Nick Clegg, the UK’s former deputy prime minister, as vice president of global affairs in 2018. Since then, Clegg has established the company’s external oversight board and helped shape its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A former US ambassador, Ted Osius, joined Google in 2019 as vice president for public policy and government relations for the Asia Pacific region.

“Larger firms, including tech ones, have long had ‘public affairs’ roles spanning policy and government relations, to help them navigate public policy—to tackle policy changes, market access issues, new compliance demands, often caused by changes in rules. Many have also had ex-bureaucrats in advisory roles, in the hope that these former insiders can help them lobby better,” said Roy.

Tech companies are careful to hire the right bureaucrats who fit in with their work cultures. Former IAS officers who join corporates are known to dress formally while their colleagues come in slippers and shorts. They have to get used to sitting in cubicles and not spacious offices, and being greeted with a “what’s up?” instead of “good morning.” While old world industry is more of a natural fit with its commandant structures, the new generation is incredibly informal and comes with “fun” workspaces.

Today, public policy positions are high-profile jobs that are vulnerable to controversy. A job in public policy in the corporate space can take on several dimensions, including a more proactive role in impact policy making, like what Nick Clegg does, and the more reactive role of navigating through issues. In the past, public policy positions were more behind-the-scenes — but now, much like the government’s hostility, the job is more visible.

Other positions are also becoming more noteworthy as the Modi government looks for more accountability from Big Tech. Some of the positions, like compliance or grievance officers, are statutory and might even have criminal liability for non-compliance under the new IT rules, which some firms are pushing to change.

Companies like Twitter have struggled to appoint and retain officials in these roles: in July, the Delhi High Court said that Twitter was in “total non-compliance” with the new IT Act by appointing a third-party contractor as chief compliance officer. The company appointed a new compliance officer a week later.

“The hope is that former government officials might be able to navigate such high-pressure situations better,” Roy said.

Industry insiders have said that several of these legislations are unnecessarily complicated, and formulated to hinder company growth and maintain governmental control, especially since laws like the IT Rules are intent on holding individuals (like a compliance or grievance officer) liable. Former IAS officers like Rajiv Aggarwal could, therefore, help Silicon Valley startups looking to expand into the Indian market and MNCs test, or at least negotiate, the government’s boundaries.

Vivan Sharan, partner at technology policy consulting firm Koan Advisory Group, said Rajiv Aggarwal’s exit takes courage, and would not have gone unnoticed on either the public or private side. “It’s rare for mid-career IAS officers to leave their jobs, that too for public policy roles to re-engage with the space they left behind.”

He added that while government officers often take up advisory roles in the private sector post-retirement, it’s far less typical for IAS officers to voluntarily retire and leave the security of their jobs.

Also read: For OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and censorship

A new range of overlapping issues

Besides dealing with regulations, technology companies in India are also dealing with policy issues that require a different approach, and public policy experts could bridge this gap.

“The intersectionalities between the public and private sectors are growing,” said Sharan. “There are more unchartered territories that require multiple different hats to figure out multidisciplinary public policy solutions.”

Policy experts are expected to clarify confusion and find workarounds through overlapping areas between the government and private companies. For example, Google’s payment service Google Pay uses Unified Payments Interface (UPI), developed by the National Payments Corporation of India, and Google had to issue clarifications that it is complying with the RBI regulations. Earlier this month, the Delhi High Court heard a PIL filed against Google Pay.

Experience from both sides of the aisle could be the policy solution to these multidisciplinary Indian issues, but it remains to be seen whether this could actually happen.

“It’ll be good to have a two-way process to allow people to rejoin government service after leaving the private sector. More people would do it if they knew the door wouldn’t shut on either side,” said Sharan, adding that administrative reforms are necessary to make this process seamless.

(Edited by Prashant)

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