The government banned 59 apps of Chinese Origin, including TikTok. Following a chill in relations after the death of Indian soldiers. Center for Internet and Society researcher Arindrajit Basu speaks to Anam Ajmal about the app ban issue.
What threats, if any, did the apps pose?
The three specific questions raised against these apps included the violation of privacy and data security, transfer of data. To locations outside India and compilation, mining and profiling of data by “elements hostile to National security.” This decision did not come after a formal review process. At least one that was publicly disclosed., of these apps. Nor was there any evidence provided to support these claims. So it is difficult to support the threats any of these apps posed with any degree of certainty.
What we can say is that China’s National Intelligence Law mandates and supports private companies. To work with national intelligence agencies and share information with them. Given the increasing tensions at the border, this is a potential threat that must figure in our calculations. The timing makes it clear that this ban is a part of a border geo-economic strategy aimed at opposing China.
How difficult or easy will it be to implement the ban? What does it mean for users?
All banned apps have already been removed from Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. The government may also issue an order to internet service providers and telecom companies to block them. It is not technically illegal to use these apps. We must also consider that these apps, TikTok in particular, had become a vital cultural element. And in some cases a source of financial security for many Indians, particularly in non-urban spaces. It is important that the positives that these apps brought to Indian society are not been stopped. And a smooth transition to the number of Indian or non-Chinese alternatives is facilitated.
What will be the app ban implication on the Indian technology landscape?
The Indian tech landscape has been changing fairly dramatically in the past couple of months since Facebook bought a 9.9% stake in Jio platforms. This spurred talks on a series of non- Chinese investment into Indian companies. As of now, Chinese companies, including dedicated venture capitalist funds. And tech companies like Alibaba, have made several inroads in India. Their investment has largely been in the startup space but also in larger players like Paytm. India-China decoupling which is playing out both through this ban and recent FDI that erected barriers. Chinese investment in India is likely to result in alternative forms of capital flowing in. Thereby reducing dependence on China, and limiting its economic and strategic influence.
Does the order set a precedent for the country and world?
The public signaling was essential communication as evidence of India’s desire to separate from China. Coincidentally, 24 hours after this announcement, the United States Federal Communications Commission designated Huawei and ZTE as a national security threat. While India had previously not restricted the participation of Chinese companies in its 5G trials, reports indicate that this position might change. While individually, India may not be able to exercise economic pressure on China. A global separating effort might yield better results.
Will the app ban impact Chinese companies and China economically? If so, what extent?
Separation from China is easier said than done, 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 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 it’s parent company ByteDance. The impact on China’s economy overall is difficult to predict at this stage. However, we should not look at this as an offensive measure aimed at changing China’s military behavior or strategic posturing but as an incremental measure signaling India’s intent to thrive independently of Chinese economic largesse and political influence.
Could it be geographical imposition as well?
While the app ban might serve as a strategic tool in the short run, longer-term questions on India’s digital geopolitical stance need to be answered. 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. How do we marry our core constitutional values needs? Can we 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.
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