Data is considered to be the new oil in today’s age. If you have the data, you have the power. The power to formulate policies, to tackle an adverse situation (like a pandemic), to strengthen a delivery system, to support a propaganda, or even to take down a country in the times of uncertainty.
China has been accused by many countries to strengthen its interest by using the data it collects through its apps and service providers (the case of Huawei’s 5G technology). India, home to more than half a billion internet users, can be considered as an ocean of data where, given the appropriate resources, anyone can take a dive, and use the data to one’s benefit.
Many of the Chinese apps, especially TikTok, have come under the scanner for their unlawful techniques to collect data, and the potential misuse of the same. At a time when relations between India and China are at their worst, a digital cut-off was on the cards.
The Indo-China clash in Galwan Valley, Ladakh had sparked protests amongst Indians towards the use of Chinese goods and services. With hashtags like #BoycottChina trending on twitter, many restored to burning effigies of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and destroying Chinese goods. Many Government agencies also appeared to take part in this by trying to distance themselves from the neighbouring country.
Soon after the clash, the Indian Railways cited "poor progress" to terminate a project with the Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication Group. The Bihar Government recently cancelled tenders for a mega project, while the Maharashtra Government has put three Chinese deals worth Rs 5020 crore on hold.
Now, the Central Government has responded to the Chinese side with a “#DigitalAirStrike”, which is the name given to the move by many Twitteratis owing to the Chinese connections of the apps that have been blocked. The ban also comes two weeks after 20 Indian soldiers were killed, and 76 were wounded in the violent clash with their Chinese counterparts in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control.
A list of the banned apps is as follows :-
In a press release on Monday, the Ministry of Electronics and IT invoked its power under section 69A of the Information Technology Act to block 59 apps with Chinese affiliation (See picture attached), claiming that the listed apps “are engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”
The Ministry said that they have received many complaints from various sources including several reports about the misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.
The Ministry reported that the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), an office in the Ministry of Information technology dealing with cyber security threats, had also received many complaints from citizens regarding the security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues.
Incoherence with such complaints, the exhaustive list of apps provided by the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre and Ministry of Home Affairs, and not to mention the strong discourse in the public spaces to take strict action against these Apps, the Ministry has taken this move to protect the public’s privacy, according to the official press release.
The ban sends a message about the shift in policy towards China. Gone are the days when India used to appease her neighbour in the hope that China will extend its helping hand towards us. It is about sending a message that our integrity and sovereignty are of paramount importance to us. We will put India first, even at the cost of irritating a neighbour.
On the flipside though, some apps which are on the list are very popular in India, especially Tiktok with 119 million active users from the sub-continent. Other social media platform like Likee, Helo, and Bigo Live were also up and coming platforms attracting a lot of Indian users. These users will now have to look for substitute platforms.
Probably the more concerning impact of this sudden banning is that most of these platforms, more specifically TikTok, had a popular community of “creators” who earned their livelihood creating content on these apps, and for many, it was the only source of income. Along with it, many of these apps have offices and employees in India, where few thousands of jobs could be at stake.
A notification is to follow, instructing internet service providers to block these apps. Users are likely to get a message saying that the access to these apps has been restricted on the request of the Government.
However, while this will definitely impact apps like TikTok and UC browser, which need a live internet feed to function, users might still be able to use apps which are already downloaded, and do not need the internet. The further download of these apps might not be possible, as it is most likely that Google Play Store, Apple App Store, and others of the like, will block these apps.
This action has been taken in a specific context of national security and specific strategy, and can be considered as a warning to other big Chinese businesses in India, and even to China itself.