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Chinese App Ban: Censoring Indian Web to Make a Geopolitical Point

In a move that is seen widely as a response to the stand-off along the LAC, the government on Monday, 29 June, announced a ban on 59 apps, all of them Chinese-owned, including the hugely popular TikTok.

According to a press statement issued by the Ministry of Electronics & IT, the banned apps have “engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”

Invoking Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2008, the statement cites threats to privacy of users and data security as the prime reasons to block public access to these apps.

While some have hailed the move as a “digital air strike,” legal and cyber policy analysts seek greater clarity on the legal process backing this decision and have questioned the tenuous justification of privacy and security that has been offered.

Experts point out that while a press announcement has been made, no legal order has been made public yet. Moreover, the language of the statement, the apps targeted and the provisions invoked to impose the ban all point towards the decision being a political one.

In the midst of a heightened pitch to boycott Chinese apps, the move doesn’t exactly come as a surprise as reports had suggested that the recently inaugurated Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre had sent an exhaustive recommendation for blocking 52 of these malicious apps.

Also Read: Why ‘Boycott Chinese Apps’ Can’t Ignore China’s $8 Bn in Desi Apps

A POLITICAL MOVE?

Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and founder of MediaNama, asserts that this is “clearly a political decision.”

“The most interesting thing is they have actually announced a Section 69A decision. They have never done this before. The reason they have announced it is because they want to send a message. This is a decision based on a geopolitical situation,” Pahwa tells The Quint.

While the government statement does not mention China, Pahwa points out two aspects of the announcement that illustrate the political nature of the decision.

First, all the apps are indeed Chinese apps. “From a privacy perspective, I don’t see what’s changed in the apps, say over the last year, hypothetically. The other thing that is very clear that these are all Chinese apps.”

Second, “they mention Section 69A [of the IT Act] and the sovereignty and integrity of India makes it clear this is about India-China stand-off. This is clearly an action directed at Chinese apps,” Pahwa adds.

WHAT ABOUT THE LEGAL ORDER?

Apar Gupta, executive director at Internet Freedom Foundation points out that without a legal order this decision may not be sustainable.

"“The legal order itself is not public yet. The basis of the order so far is the press statement.”" - Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation

“A legal order may have the same text. Now, if the legal order matches the text of the press statement there are certain points that do require clarity because it seems all the 59 websites have been blocked without any kind of notice, hearing provided to them,” Gupta tells The Quint.

“This constitutes on of the largest acts of web censorship in terms of the number of people impacted in India,” Gupta says. 

“While this can be done in certain emergency conditions, they still need to be provided a fair hearing,” he adds.

INDIAN APPS WELCOME DECISION

“Govt banning Chinese apps is a great initiative to ensure privacy of Indian user data and to protect the country against the potential threat these apps pose to our national security,” Piyush, founder & CEO of Rooter, a sport community app, tells The Quint.

He contends that this step can prove to be “a golden moment in Indian startup journey” with Made in India apps getting a rare opportunity to onboard those users and provide them with the same services.

“Indian technology ecosystem has come a long way in last five to six years and are at par with the capabilities of any other startup ecosystem in the world. We welcome this move and we hope Indians will chose apps which are made in India, for India,” he adds.

THE 5G QUESTION & NEED FOR A LONG-TERM PLAN

While the press statement explains “there have been raging concerns on aspects relating to data security and safeguarding the privacy of 130 crore Indians,” it does not explain the nature of the threats to privacy.

Nor does the order clarify whether all the 59 apps are guilty of the same degree of data security violations as these apps perform different functions and collect different kinds of data.

“A blanket ban on 51 Chinese Apps is a knee jerk reaction to systematic challenge which requires strategic actions. The long overdue Personal Data Protection Bill and an enhanced cyber-security infrastructure to protect informational privacy of the citizens is key to this debate,” says Kazim Rizvi, founder, The Dialogue, a technology policy think tank.

Rizvi points out that the reports cited in the order that allege the apps to be engaging in “activities that are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order” will need close scrutiny.

“A widespread ban can not be affected, unless we can justify the presence of the apps on the list on very specific grounds,” Rizvi tells The Quint.

Many on social media have raised the issue of China’s dominating presence in the hardware industries including smartphones, routers and 5G technology development.

Identifying 5G as a strategic sector and whether it is prudent for the central government to allow Chinese investment, Rizvi adds, “Further, it is also the time to reduce Chinese investment in the 5G technology given the fact that unlike 4G network which is cellular in nature, 5G will be the bedrock of the smart cities, transport, infrastructure.”

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