On June 29, 2020, the Government of India announced a ban on 59 apps of Chinese origin. In the long list of apps, many applications are unheard of, and it includes famous applications called TikTok, CamScanner and a few others which are used by millions of individuals in India. Per the announcement, India’s Ministry of Information Technology has invoked its power under section 69A of the Information Technology Act in view of the emergent nature of threats by these apps that the government believes are engaged in activities which are a threat to the nation’s security and public order.
The release further confirms that the Ministry has received complaints including reports about the misuse of these apps and them stealing and transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.
Of all the 59 applications, TikTok is the most prominent of them all, and this isn’t the first time that it has come under the scanner in India. In April 2019, the Madras High Court asked the federal government to ban TikTok on accounts of inappropriate content. This ban was lifted shortly thereafter when TikTok’s counsel argued the ban should not be on the intermediary but the content creator.
The application and the parent company (ByteDance) has had its fair share of run-ins here in the US too. In January 2019, the think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics had spoken rather fiercely against TikTok and other Chinese social media apps that they believe pose new risk to the west. Among other things, the more than fair concerns that were raised included possibilities of espionage and manipulation of public opinion.
More recently, in July 2020 and within a few days of India announcing this ban, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the US is considering banning these Chinese apps and taking the matter very seriously.
Of course, this is in addition to the current posture that the US is taking against Huawei that it believes is a threat to the nation’s security. Might be worthy to point out that ZTE has already been declared as a danger to the American national security. To make matters worse for TikTok, only recently it was pointed out that the application can secretly access the clipboard on users’ iOS devices. While TikTok has assured that it will resolve this issue in its latest update, this incident has left a dent in the mind of policy and decision-makers who are increasingly wary about the application and its data collection policies.
We at Greyhound Research believe this ban by India can well be considered as a “tool of negotiation” with China and likely connected to the clash between the two nations on the border. Interestingly, while India’s press release clearly calls out the use of data by elements hostile to national security and defence of India and that these apps are malicious but has refrained from calling them out as Chinese apps. But the interconnection between politics and business is hardly a surprise, and most countries often use it to their advantage.
On its part, TikTok has written to Indian officials to assure them that Chinese authorities have never demanded data and that while currently all data is stored in Singapore servers, the company will invest in India data centre in the times to come.
We at Greyhound Research believe that this does not comes as a surprise since it’s an essential requirement for such apps to comply with the laws of the land. This is very similar to how the Government of India asked Facebook to curtail forwards on WhatsApp to partially solve (if not entirely) the issue of fake news. This also resonates with how the Government of India has asked Microsoft, Oracle, Google, among others to comply with local data residency requirements, and invest in local data centres along with filing taxes locally. This is also similar to how the Trump administration has systematically clamped down on H1B visas to discourage immigration and ensure Indian IT services are investing locally in the US and generating employment for American citizens.
We at Greyhound Research believe while the ban by the Government of India on Chinese apps may seem harsh, but its effectively offering China the same treatment that China has dished out to US companies like Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and many others. These western companies have made repeated attempts to enter the Chinese market only to have to retract their investments.
Effectively China has over the years, ensured it kept out some of these western companies and used that opportunity to build a walled garden and create digital powerhouses to earn from. And now China complaining about such a ban is as good as irony gets. However, While it’s easy to single out any country for proposing and executing on such a ban, the fact is, nearly all countries can be held guilty for similar tactics.
As companies and governments globally battle with the difficult decision to whether or not ban such applications and other similar services, we must take a pause and ponder on the recent history of our world. We in 2020 are still battling tough realities about a highly fragile economic system that we have created, and a highly fragmented society that we have become wherein race, superiority and bias are still looming questions ahead of us.
We individually and collectively must answer some tough questions. Could we the human race have made the kind of progress we have in our microcosms? Do we, in our individual capacities, have all the wherewithal required to make our collective futures better and more sustainable? And most importantly, can we, as nations, independently and without cooperating with other countries, are confident to make progress that is sustainable and inclusive? Are we truly being honest to ourselves when we participate in the sloganeering and chest-beating about our nation(s) being so great that we can survive with our protectionist outlook? And last but not least, is banning a plausible, long-term solution? Can we realistically ban all apps coming from a nation? And most of all, isn’t that a total contrast to our collective want of fair, open societies?
The day we can honestly answer some of these questions, we can then confidently face the realities of this highly globalized world. And then we won’t ever need to discuss such topics of banning trade with other countries, and naturally, our politics and policies will follow suit.
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