Sathyajith – Jnr. Associate Editor
THE INDIAN SAGA OF CHINESE ‘APP’ BAN
The Government of India in a recent measure banned 118 applications which have Chinese origins citing security reasons. This measure came in the backdrop of allegations of China being negligent in sharing information regarding the true nature of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to the world and the border clashes between the two neighbours. It would be pertinent to analyse this measure in the context provided above to get a holistic understanding of the issue, rather than making a study of the same in isolation.
The allegations of Chinese negligence regarding information sharing concerning the COVID-19 pandemic started in April. It was alleged that China is using the pandemic to make hostile takeovers. Several countries across the world including India brought in certain measures to prevent such hostile takeovers. In April, India introduced a notification which required government approval for investments into India from nations that share a border. This is primarily targeted to China after reports emerged that there were opportunistic takeovers. (Shrivastava, 2020)
This was followed by the border dispute between India and China at the Galwan Valley. Reports state that the Chinese troops transgressed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which led to the military clashes between the two sides. As the military clashes failed to defuse, the call to boycott Chinese products also started to gain momentum. Several trade bodies such as the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) also supported the call for a boycott. (Bhosale, 2020) This also coincided with the government’s call for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. With no signs of de-escalation of the dispute, several state governments and public enterprises started to rescind the contracts with Chinese firms. These included areas of information technology, infrastructure development inter alia.
On July 29th, India banned 59 Chinese based apps which included popular platforms such as Tiktok, We Chat, Helo etc., by bringing out a notification under Section 69A of the Information and Technology Act and the rules made thereof citing a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the Indian State. (Bureau, 2020) It has been said that the ban would help Indian-based apps to expand and secure a larger market share. Further, on September 2nd, India banned 118 China-based apps citing a threat to national security.
Do the apps pose a threat to security?
A few weeks after banning 59 Chinese apps, in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that the government would come out with a Cyber Security Strategy. Recently, after the Chinese app ban, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval addressed the Kerala police on cybercrimes and security where he stated that there has been an increase of 500 per cent in cybercrimes in India due to lack of awareness and online hygiene. (PTI, 2020)
The press release issued on 2nd September by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology states that there is sufficient information that the apps have been engaging in “activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order”. (Delhi, 2020) It also states that some of the apps were stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India. The input regarding the same was provided by the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre which functions under the Ministry of Home Affairs for blocking these malicious apps. If one were to broadly dissect the issue regarding the ban, it can be done as provided below.
First, the moot point is regarding the protection of privacy of individuals. Because India still does not have a data protection framework for the companies to adhere, it has become a challenging task for individuals to seek legal protection regarding the same. While it is true that the right to privacy has been recognised as a fundamental right, enforcing the same through legal remedies is still a work in progress. In this context, the government banning apps for privacy concerns is significant.
Second, a dispassionate analysis of Sino-Indian relations reveals that the Dragon has been a belligerent neighbour. Because recent reports also suggest that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intends to control the private sector, it would be against India’s interest if China-based apps are permitted to be the medium for the CCP to get access to data of Indian nationals. Reports suggest that in 2016, 68 per cent of the private sector companies in China had CCP cells. (Dubey, 2020)When the government of a belligerent state is easily granted access to the data of individuals, there is a higher probability of the country compromising on the fundamental rights of its citizens, ergo, potential loss of sovereignty.
Third, the very fact that China has not only been hostile in bilateral issues but also actively supported Pakistan when it comes to issues of cross-border terrorism also works against Indian interests. With the CCP getting access to personal data and sensitive personal data of Indians on the one hand, and China-Pakistan being in bed with each other on the other, it is certainly prejudicial to the security, sovereignty and integrity of India which rightly finds a mention in the press release.
The Economic Prism
As it was previously pointed out, the call for the boycott of Chinese products intends to make India self-reliant and hurt the Chinese opportunistic economic interests. There were calls to do it in a calibrated manner which included boycotting China-based software applications immediately, and moving on to hardware equipment and goods subsequently at a future date. Some commentators and experts point out that China will not be hurt in any way if Indians boycott their products since Chinese exports to India amount to only two per cent of their total exports. However, it is pertinent to consider the fact that around 12 per cent of the trade surplus in China comes from India. (Jagannathan, 2020) This demonstrates that there will be a significant impact economically on China.
Advertisers seek to market their products on platforms which have a lot of customers. It forms a significant amount of revenue to the app company. The app ban discourages advertisers from providing advertisements to Chinese apps due to loss of market share, thereby reducing the revenues, and profit margins if any.
Moreover, the app ban is significant since it also has a symbolic value in the context of the military clashes, and even independently. In the context of military clashes, it can be viewed as an economic retaliation which is considered as a legitimate way of expressing displeasure. Independently, it can be seen as a measure which seeks to protect the data of individuals and prioritize national security. Interestingly, it can be said that this is one of those rare instances where protection of privacy and national security go hand-in-hand and not run opposite to each other.
A Worldwide Phenomenon?
Apart from India, the Executive wing in the United States of America has also decided to ban Chinese apps like Tiktok if the operations of the same are not transferred to a US-based company. It is reported that even Australian intelligence agencies have been investigating the use of Tiktok over security concerns. (Dziedzic, 2020)
While the ban of applications may not have been a truly global phenomenon, it has to be noted that globally governments have kept the Chinese firms outside the scope of developing economically strategic infrastructure projects. For instance, countries like India, USA, UK, Australia, ‘inter alia’ have decided to not permit Chinese telecom giant Huawei in developing 5G infrastructure.
While the ban on Chinese apps is a welcome move, it does raise certain questions. If the applications were a threat to the security of the state, did the security agencies fail to notice it until the border clashes on the LAC commenced? Or, is it a case in point where the ban is mere symbolic economic retaliation which is masked with the reasons concerning security of the state? Or, is it just a mere coincidence that the security agencies discovered the threat from these apps at a time when the military clashes at the border were escalating?
However, it is better late than never to undertake corrective measures. If the ban serves the national interest, there is no reason which stops the government of the day to further the same. Nevertheless, such measures must be backed by logic-based policy-making and actions. If not, countries across the world may use the shield of national security for unwarranted acts.
Bhosale, Jayashree. 2020. Economic Times. [Online] July 2, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/more-trade-bodies-join-campaign-to-boycott-chinese-goods/articleshow/76749420.cms?from=mdr.
Bureau, ET. 2020. Economic Times. [Online] July 29, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/software/india-bans-59-chinese-apps-including-tiktok-helo-wechat/articleshow/76694814.cms.
Delhi, PIB. 2020. Press Information Bureau. [Online] September 2, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1650669.
Dubey, Ravi. 2020. DNA. [Online] September 17, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://www.dnaindia.com/business/report-xi-jinping-wants-more-control-over-private-companies-in-china-by-increasing-the-impact-of-ccp-2843475.
Dziedzic, Stephen. 2020. ABC News. [Online] August 2, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-02/tiktok-under-investigation-in-australia-over-privacy-concerns/12513466.
Jagannathan, R. 2020. A Citizen’s Guide To The Hows And Whys Of Boycotting Chinese Products. Swarajya. [Online] June 30, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://swarajyamag.com/ideas/a-citizens-guide-to-the-hows-and-whys-of-boycotting-chinese-products.
PTI. 2020. Hindustan Times. [Online] September 19, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/nsa-doval-asks-citizens-to-be-cautious-as-financial-frauds-surge-due-to-dependence-on-digital-payment-platforms/story-cTW8i4JrP3pXmnTKje42RN.html.
Shrivastava, Rahul. 2020. India Today. [Online] April 18, 2020. [Cited: September 23, 2020.] https://www.indiatoday.in/business/story/alarmed-by-chinese-bank-raising-stake-in-hdfc-centre-revises-fdi-policy-1668407-2020-04-18.
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Legit Originals: Volume 1, Issue 2(October 2020)
Happy to announce that, Legit by Internationalism, The Magazine on Legal Theory by Internationalism, is featured in the Top 100 Legal Blogs of India and hold the rank 56, by Feedspot.
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