Whenever we talk about the foreign policy of India, the relations of India with China and Pakistan take the first place in our mind. We hear news from time to time about the MoUs and deals regarding the trade with these nations. But besides that, the Indo-China relations are always been in the headlines due to the territorial disputes.
On 29th June 2020, India banned 59 Chinese Applications including the famous TikTok app citing threat to national security & the privacy of Indian citizens under section 69a of IT Act, 2020. The government issued an explanation that these apps are illegally exporting data to locations outside India. It didn’t mention the relation of apps with China, but these apps are mostly of Chinese origin or have a major part of investments from Chinese companies.
The Centre through an interim order, blocked access to 59 Chinese phone applications from India. Generally, these restrictions are introduced through a ‘geo-block’, i.e. a technological measure which restricts access to content based on the user’s IP address. However, the exact nature and scope of the restriction is not entirely clear and is being configured at this juncture. At present, some of these apps cannot be accessed in India even with the help of a virtual private network or with the help of a technologically advanced firewall.
The notification is expected to be followed by instructions to Internet service providers to block these apps. Users are likely to soon see a message saying access to the apps has been restricted on the request of the government. However, while this will impact apps like TikTok and UC News that need a live feed to serve any purpose, users might still be able to continue using apps that don’t need an active Internet connection to be used. But further downloads of these apps, like CamScanner, are likely to be blocked on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store.
REASONS FOR THE BAN
India's Ministry of Information Technology has said the ban was the result of "many complaints from various sources" about apps that were "stealing and transmitting users' data in an unauthorised manner". Many of the Chinese apps have been linked to controversies over data privacy, and have been accused of sharing sensitive information with the Chinese government. US senators have even called for an investigation into TikTok, which fiercely rejects such claims.
China’s National Intelligence Law mandates and incentivizes private companies to work with national intelligence agencies and share information with them. This means that the data collected by the Chinese apps from their potential users can be accessible to the Chinese Government. There have also been several evidences that the data we casually copy on the clip-board, like maybe your bank OTP or any phone number or personal information is accessible and readable by these apps. The leak of such sensitive information can possess a major threat to the users of these apps as well as to our country.
This isn't the first time Chinese apps have been banned in India. In 2017, Alibaba's UC Browser came under scrutiny for allegedly leaking mobile data of Indian users. And that year, India's defense ministry asked all armed personnel and officers to uninstall 42 Chinese apps, classifying them as "spyware". Some, however, believe that the timing of the ban is not coincidental, but rather a response to the events at the border.
The officials brushed aside Beijing’s contentions and its veiled threat to drag India to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over New Delhi’s Monday’s (June 29) decision to ban 59 mostly Chinese mobile applications such as TikTok, UC Browser and WeChat, citing concerns that these are “prejudicial to sovereignty of India, defense of India, security of state and public order”. But India has no agreement on this matter with China. Thus, India can defend [it] easily under the clause of national security interest and sovereignty of the country.
IMPACT OF THE BAN
India is TikTok's biggest foreign market, with an estimated 120 million active users. TikTok allows users to publish and share short videos. In the years since it has launched in India, the app has become a platform for Indians of all ages and classes. The app has turned many ordinary Indians into social media stars. "The thousands of TikTok influencers who were making a living off the platform and the many Indian traders and businessmen who need to connect to people in China and do that over WeChat have been negatively impacted."
TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, told the BBC, it is "committed to working with the [Indian] government to demonstrate their dedication to user security and their commitment to the country overall. Nikhil Gandhi, TikTok's India head, said on Twitter that the company had been invited to meet "concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications." Other app makers are yet to respond to the ban. Experts say that most of these firms will try to lobby policy makers but they are not likely to be allowed as long as tensions continue at the border and anti-China sentiments remain high in the country.
China is India’s largest trade partner after the US and our dependence on China extends well beyond the tech space. The app ban will certainly have an impact on the holding companies. For example, when it comes to TikTok, 30% of total installations come from India and this naturally harms its parent company ByteDance. The impact on China’s economy overall is difficult to predict at this stage, but will of course be negative.
A boycott campaign was given a visible boost when prominent educator and innovator Sonam Wangchuk took to social media to urge Indians that it was their responsibility as citizens to “use their wallet power” and leave a negative impact on Chinese imports. The ban will add fuel to the Boycott China campaign, which is intensifying due to the coronavirus pandemic and also because of China’s aggression at Galwan valley.
This step will counter China’s efforts to become a tech giant. The banned apps have a large user base in India. This move can also urge other nations to look into the matter of data security and can in turn have a deep impact on China. Also, this would give a support to the China plus one policy.
This step will also reduce India’s digital dependency. And Indian startups and the established companies will be greatly benefitted in gaining user base. This will bring about the downloads of many more Indian apps and would promote our Prime Minister's effort of going vocal for local. People have already started using Indian alternatives for these apps and are quite happy with the performance.
Data localization in the Indian context simply means that companies collecting critical data about consumers must store and process such data within the Indian borders. Prior to the (RBI)'s announcement of a deadline in September last year, most data from India was not stored within the country. It was usually stored on a cloud database outside India. The call to localize sensitive data by the RBI convinced many companies like Paytm, WhatsApp and Google to change their data storage locations to India by 15th October, 2019. This move may bring more investment to the data centers in India.
India is yet to pass a robust data privacy law and the latest version of the draft gives wide powers to government intelligence agencies – much like the Chinese legal framework. We can conceptualize a holistic digital strategy that closely evaluates all foreign influence in our core information infrastructure rather than continuously reacting to external events. Global power projection begins at home; we need to get our own policies right first. New Delhi must ensure that the victims of India’s geo-economic enthusiasm are not Indian citizens and consumers.
Thus, the ban on Chinese apps have brought into light many issues with regard to data privacy and security. With this, it makes a strong point given by India to the world about taking bold steps to secure the country's sensitive data. The timing of the ban makes it prudent to analyse this move in the geopolitical context of the clash between the Indian and Chinese military in Galwan Valley. This ban will act as a caution for all the tech companies to follow the rules and to store the data locally. And this is also a great opportunity for the Indian companies to launch and upgrade their apps as alternatives to the banned apps. Being responsible citizens of the country, we should all pledge to not use these apps and support the decision of our govt to make India a stronger country, both economically and politically too!
If you want to have a brief idea about how to present these points in front of a group, do watch the video-