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Appropriate strategy: On India banning more China apps

data

Context:

The government banned 118 applications — majority being Chinese, including popular ones such as PUBG, WeChat Work, Baidu, CamCard, Rise of Kingdoms: Lost Crusade and Alipay, stating that these were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of State and public order”.

This is in addition to the ban on 59 Chinese applications, including TikTok, Shareit, Mi Video Call, Club Factory and Cam Scanner, in June last

The blocking of a hundred more Chinese mobile applications suggests that the Indian government, wants to make it amply clear that it will not shy away from leveraging its position as a massive market for technology in dealing with potentially dangerous geopolitical issues.

Since June, when border tensions between India and China turned ugly, the government has till now stepped in thrice to block many Chinese applications in one go.

Why were the Chinese apps banned?

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asserted that it had received “many complaints from various sources, including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”.

The Ministry said it had decided to block the apps to safeguard the “sovereignty and integrity of India”, invoking powers under Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009.

The government also said that several citizens had reportedly raised concerns in representations to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) regarding security of data and loss of privacy in using these apps.

In addition, the Ministry said it had also received “exhaustive recommendations” from the Home Ministry’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre.

What will be the impact of Chinese apps ban?

According to a report published by Paulson Institute’s MacroPolo think tank, six of the top 10 most downloaded apps in India were from Chinese tech companies, compared with four from US companies.

India has been the biggest untapped market for some of China’s quirkiest social-media companies, which had been signing up hundreds of millions of consumers in the world’s second-most populous nation, looking to capture users who weren’t hooked on to US apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

What has China’s response been to the ban?

China has said that it suspects India’s actions could be in violation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

Chinese Government said “India’s measure selectively and discriminatorily aims at certain Chinese apps on ambiguous and far-fetched grounds, runs against fair and transparent procedure requirements, abuses national security exceptions, and [is suspected] of violating the WTO rules.”

The Chinese government’s comments indicate that it could file a formal complaint at the WTO.

India needs to reduce economic dependence on China:

  1. The ban on Chinese mobile apps may be construed as low hanging fruit and a relatively soft target, but it is, at the same time, a decision that makes the point without leading to a revenue loss for India or hurting it economically.
  2. Nevertheless, tensions on the border, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have ignited a much-needed debate on India’s economic dependencies on China.
  3. There is an asymmetry in power, a visible economic disparity. The Chinese economy is roughly five times larger than India’s.
  4. While India accounts for only 3 per cent of China’s exports, China (excluding Hong Kong) accounts for 14 per cent of India’s imports, and 5 per cent of exports
  5. India remains reliant on Chinese products in several critical and strategically sensitive sectors, from semiconductors and active pharmaceutical ingredients to the telecom sector.
  6. Chinese vendors are involved not only in India’s 4G network but in on-going 5G trials as well.

Way forward: Data firewall: On need for a data protection law:

  1. The report by a German cybersecurity firm that medical details of millions of Indian patients were leaked and are freely available on the Internet is worrying.
  2. Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) in July 2017 constituted a ten-member committee of experts headed by former Supreme Court Judge, Justice B.N. Srikrishna to study various issues related to data protection in India and also to draft a Data Protection Law.
  3. The report has cited Puttaswamy Judgment and highlighted that sphere of privacy includes a right to protect one‘s identity.
  4. Yet, considering the manner in which public data are being stored and used by both the state and private entities, a comprehensive Data Protection Act is the need of the hour.
  5. The data protection law, a dire need in this age, is not yet there. All this does not bode well for a country with aspirations of global leadership of tech, an industry which thrives on global networks and rules.

Data privacy and security remains to be major challenges emanating from the ongoing digital revolution. Thus, a data protection law is long overdue.

Conclusion:

China, which for years has unleashed widespread censorship of information and kept apps from outside off its Internet, has found a rare chance to take the moral high ground. It has criticised India’s move, accusing it of “abusing the concept of national security”.

The last thing India needs is to be compared with China as far as its Internet regulation goes. It certainly needs a more considered approach to tech regulation.