India Bans Chinese Apps Amid Privacy Concerns, Border Tensions

On Monday, Indian authorities announced a ban on dozens of Chinese apps including WeChat, Weibo, and TikTok. The official statement on the ban cited national security and consumer privacy, reflecting a broader global trend of wariness toward Chinese tech exports as possible vectors for influence or espionage. The backdrop also includes deadly clashes between the two countries’ soldiers in disputed border territories, with political tension and public fury in their wake. From the statement:

The Ministry of Information Technology, invoking it’s power under section 69A of the Information Technology Act read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009 and in view of the emergent nature of threats has decided to block 59 apps (see Appendix) since in view of information available they are engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.

Over the last few years, India has emerged as a leading innovator when it comes to technological advancements and a primary market in the digital space.

At the same time, there have been raging concerns on aspects relating to data security and safeguarding the privacy of 130 crore Indians. It has been noted recently that such concerns also pose a threat to sovereignty and security of our country. The Ministry of Information Technology has 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 unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India. The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.

The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, Ministry of Home Affairs has also sent an exhaustive recommendation for blocking these malicious apps. This Ministry has also received many representations raising concerns from citizens regarding security of data and risk to privacy relating to operation of certain apps. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) has also received many representations from citizens regarding security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues. Likewise, there have been similar bipartisan concerns, flagged by various public representatives, both outside and inside the Parliament of India. There has been a strong chorus in the public space to take strict action against Apps that harm India’s sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens.

On the basis of these and upon receiving of recent credible inputs that such Apps pose threat to sovereignty and integrity of India, the Government of India has decided to disallow the usage of certain Apps, used in both mobile and non-mobile Internet enabled devices. These apps are listed in the attached appendix.

This move will safeguard the interests of crores of Indian mobile and internet users. This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace. [Source]

The ban will be implemented with a combination of blocks by internet service providers and removals from app stores. An unnamed Indian official told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that "we have already asked Google and Apple to take note of the government’s latest decision and remove the apps” and “they are in the process of executing the ban.” TikTok reportedly withdrew its app and halted service preemptively.

Apple in particular has attracted widespread criticism for complying with Chinese App Store takedowns in the past. This was the focus of an online conference timed to coincide with the company’s World Wide Developers’ Conference last week, featuring panel discussions with CDT founder Xiao Qiang and others.

Despite some Schadenfreude over targeted companies receiving a taste of traditionally Chinese medicine, critics have pointed out that the Indian move reflects an expansion and normalization of similarly authoritarian tendencies:

From Raymond Zhong and Kai Schultz at The New York Times:

Dev Khare, a partner at the venture firm Lightspeed India, acknowledged that India’s app ban was a populist, “feel-good” step in some ways. He does not, however, see it as a bolt out of the blue.

“It’s something that China did a long time ago,” Mr. Khare said. “If this is what China does to the rest of the world, then the rest of the world has the right to do it to China.”

[…] Watchdog groups, however, have noted with concern the Modi government’s tendency to use sweeping policy instruments for political ends.

“In terms of being a singular act of web censorship, it’s impacted more Indians than any before,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, which promotes digital liberties in India.

The current political climate in India is one in which nationalist sentiment is likely to be accommodated above other considerations, Mr. Gupta said.

“Any kind of public policy response which is premised on grounds of national security needs to emerge from well-defined criteria, which seems to be absent here,” he said. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Rajesh Roy and Shan Li further discussed the ban’s context and likely impact:

“The digital war between China and India is hotting up because there is a heavy propaganda element infused with internet based nationalism on both sides,” said Sreeram Chaulia, Dean at Jindal School of International Affairs in Haryana State near Delhi.

Mr. Chaulia said India would like to wean its citizens from dependence on Chinese goods and services—particularly online—to prevent Beijing from dividing Indian society and weakening New Delhi’s resolve to counter China on the border dispute and broader bilateral strategic competition.

[…] Indian officials already have said they would bar their state-run telecom companies from purchasing equipment from Chinese companies such as ZTE Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. for future 4G mobile networks. Indian authorities have also privately warned telecom operators against working with Chinese companies in the rollout of new 5G networks. As recently as December, Huawei and ZTE were welcomed to participate in India’s 5G trials.

[…] TikTok is bigger in India than anywhere else outside of China, owing to the South Asian nation’s massive population and legions of young and largely unemployed fans. The app was downloaded 611 million times in two years on Apple Inc.’s app store and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Play, according to research firm Sensor Tower. Young people are often found in parks and parking lots shooting 15-second videos that mimic the song-and-dance-infused movies of Bollywood, the country’s film industry. [Source]

Chinese apps’ success in India had met a backlash even before the current standoff. An Android app for purging phones of Chinese software was downloaded around five million times between its launch in May and its removal from the Google Play store in early June, topping the country’s download rankings for two days.

Twitter commentary on the ban’s impact included some mixed assessments:

Others focused on Chinese reactions:

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian addressed the news in a relatively muted tone at a regular press briefing on Tuesday:

Reuters: India says it is taking action to ban several dozens of Chinese apps in the country citing national security concerns. What’s the foreign ministry’s comment on this?

Zhao Lijian: China has noted the press release issued by the Indian side with strong concern and is now verifying the situation. I want to stress that the Chinese government consistently asks Chinese enterprises to abide by international rules and local laws and regulations when conducting external cooperation. The Indian government has the responsibility to protect the legitimate rights and interests of international investors in India, including Chinese businesses, in accordance with market principles. Practical cooperation between China and India is mutually beneficial. Deliberate interference in such cooperation will not serve the interests of the Indian side. [Source]

A stronger statement came from China’s embassy in New Delhi. Its complaint that the ban "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 suspects of violating the WTO rules" raised eyebrows.

As for other possible responses, The Financial Times’ Chris Nuttall suggested that "a tech tit-for-tat would be pointless, given the lack of Indian penetration of the Chinese market. [… T]he fallout could come elsewhere, such as in India’s pharmaceuticals sector, with drugmakers relying on China for well over two-thirds of raw ingredients."

At The Financial Times, Stephanie Findlay, Ryan McMorrow, and Henny Sender reported on the privacy aspect of the case:

India will summon dozens of Chinese tech companies to answer accusations they are “surreptitiously stealing data”, with officials declining to outline how long the process will take.

[…] “We have been invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications,” said Nikhil Gandhi, head of TikTok India, in a statement.

Mr Gandhi said TikTok had complied with Indian data privacy and security requirements and that it had “not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government”.

An official at India’s Meity [Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology] said a full investigation into all the apps was under way. “First the committee will examine the evidence given against them [the apps], then after examination, companies will be given a chance to explain,” said the official, who could not give a timeframe for the process. [Source]

TikTok has attracted particularly intense and sustained recent scrutiny as “the first Chinese app to truly pierce the global Internet mainstream.” The company has responded by disavowing controversial content management practices as clumsy provisional measures taken in its early days and since abandoned; installing a new CEO and downplaying its Chinese ownership; and establishing a "Transparency Center" and an ethical advisory council. As part of this professed commitment to transparency, the firm recently revealed details of its recommendation system, whose role as the mysterious gatekeeper to success and failure on the platform has made it the subject of frenzied speculation and gaming attempts. This revelation was swiftly followed by fresh controversy, however, over covert and unexplained scanning of users’ clipboard contents.

Notably, the same behavior was also found in Weibo’s app, as well as others including those of ABC, CBC, CBS, CNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, NPR, Reuters, Russia Today, The Economist, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice News, and games such as Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, and Tencent’s PUBG Mobile. Stronger accusations aimed at TikTok have also circulated, but have drawn some criticism from privacy experts amid disagreement over how exceptional the firm’s practices really are.


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