Late on Monday, India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology ordered a ban on 59 mobile apps – all from Chinese companies – that it said were “engaged in activities prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. These included apps like TikTok, Clash Of Kings and Shareit, which have millions of Indian users and large teams of employees in the country.
Although the government press release on the decision does not connect it to the current tensions on the disputed border between India and China, the move appears to be an attempt to send a message to Beijing.
Here is what we know:
What has the government decided?
According to the official press release, 59 apps – all from Chinese companies – have been banned by the government for engaging in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”
These include well-known apps like TikTok, one of the world’s biggest social networks, Shareit, a popular file-sharing app, Clash of Kings, a gaming app and UC Browser, the second-most popular mobile browser in India.
As of Tuesday, some of these apps had been taken down from the Apple and Google app stores, and many users said that they were no longer working even if they had already downloaded them.
What was the explanation?
The Ministry of Electronics & IT’s press release cited a number of different reasons to ban the apps include
- concerns about misuse of data and transmitting information to servers outside India,
- an “exhaustive recommendation” from the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, and
- representations from citizens as well as “bipartisan concerns” from public representatives for action to be take against apps that harm India’s “sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens”.
“The Ministry of Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India.
The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures...
The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, Ministry of Home Affairs has also sent an exhaustive recommendation for blocking these malicious apps. This Ministry has also received many representations raising concerns from citizens regarding security of data and risk to privacy relating to operation of certain apps.
The Computer Emergency Response Team has also received many representations from citizens regarding security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues.
Likewise, there have been similar bipartisan concerns, flagged by various public representatives, both outside and inside the Parliament of India. There has been a strong chorus in the public space to take strict action against Apps that harm India’s sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens.”
What is the legal basis?
The ministry has invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, which gives the government powers to block access to a website or a service if it is “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence”.
Medianama said that this is “possibly the first time” this section has been used to ban apps.
India’s Internet Freedom Foundation also brought up some questions about whether the manner in which the ban has been invoked, particularly in the way the government appears to have used common grounds to go against a whole number of apps.
Is this connected to the India-China tensions?
On paper, no. The press release does not even mention China, and includes no reference to current events, falling back instead on claims of concerns about sovereignty and privacy.
Yet it seems likely that the decision is political and a response to the current tensions between India and China, which led to the first deaths on disputed border between the two countries in more than 40 years this month.
As Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa writes, “There hasn’t been any significant change to the way that these apps work in the last three months, and the announcement, looks like has been made to send a signal to China.”
As recently as March, Parliament was told that there had been no intelligence inputs about TikTok being dangerous for the country or any plan to ban it.
Why does this matter? Are these apps important?
A number of these aps have massive user bases in India.
Take TikTok. The video app has had more than 2 billion installs globally, making it one of the biggest apps of all time. SensorTower data points out that as much as 30% of this – with 611 million lifetime installs – came from India. That is more than users in China.
With that popularity comes commerce, as Mint reported in February. Brands, influencers and ordinary users from around the country now count on their large followings on the app to generate business. There has been an equivalent amount of interest from Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok, which last year had hired senior management in India and pledged to invest $1 billion in the country. That said, its current revenue from the Indian market remains relatively small.
The company put out a statement on Tuesday saying it has “been invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications.”
A number of other apps on the list also have a large number of users. As Matt Sheehan on Macro Polo wrote earlier this year, “In 2015, Chinese apps accounted for just three of the top ten most downloaded apps in India. By 2019, they took six of the top ten spots, with Bytedance’s TikTok taking the top spot.”
India isn’t the only country considering action against Chinese apps.
The United States has a national security investigation ongoing against TikTok, which has been accused of everything from backdoors and security issues, to being lax on child pornograpy to being susceptible to Chinese censorship.
A key aspect of the success of the Chinese apps is that “the target group of most of these platforms is the new internet users in India, specifically those from smaller cities and towns” and that, unlike American apps, many of them have focused on moving into the Indian languages space.
“There is every possibility that such apps from bordering nations can be used to foment communal disharmony and civil disobedience,” wrote Gateway House’s Blaise Fernandes earlier this month. “Given the education and exposure levels of the next generation of smartphone users, this is a grave security risk, especially as smartphone penetration and data speeds improve in sensitive border areas.”