Great Firewall of India

The ban on apps brought instant gratification to many but shutting China completely out could cost us as well

By Author  |  Published: 5th Jul 2020  12:01 amUpdated: 4th Jul 2020  11:18 pm
Great Firewall

Would it or would it not make a difference? If it does, how? If it does not, why? How will the Central government’s move to ban 59 mostly-Chinese apps, including the popular TikTok, pan out?

There has not been enough clarity from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) as to why these apps were banned, with it simply stating that they were “prejudicial to sovereignty of India, defence of India, security of state and public order. This move will safeguard the interests of crores of Indian mobile and internet users.”

Like any other argument, the opinions are highly divided in this case too with some saying the move is strategic while others convinced that it is an emotional move to pacify the country after the Galwan Valley casualties.

Its Own Medicine

With the ban of apps and low-key internet censorship for Chinese content, one thing New Delhi has done is, it has given China a taste of its own medicine. The People’s Republic of China is no stranger to internet censorship. In fact, it has mastered it. Termed as ‘The Great Firewall of China’, the country’s censorship project has blocked access to many foreign websites to slow cross-border internet traffic. Leading internet tools such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia have been blocked in China. Not only does the Great Firewall block content, it also limits access to other foreign information sources and modifies search results, which then show content that is favourable to the country.

So much is the impact that a whole generation is coming up with internet and internet tools that are distinctly different from that of the rest of the world. Many Chinese youngsters have no clue about Google and Facebook. Time and again, Western media through its staff in Hong Kong and Taiwan has reported how China with the help of the ‘Great Firewall’ has ensured that the generations to come will not be influenced by the openness of the internet.

In a statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China is “strongly concerned” about India’s decision to ban Chinese mobile apps such as Bytedance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat and was “verifying the situation”. “We want to stress that Chinese government always asks Chinese businesses to abide by international and local laws-regulations. Indian government has a responsibility to uphold the legal rights of international investors, including Chinese ones,” stressed Lijian.

Chinese embassy spokesperson Ji Rong added that 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 violating WTO rules.”

All About Bucks

With roughly $6.5 billion investments in various sectors in India, including tech companies, startups, mobile applications and the smartphone market, Chinese investment in the Indian economy is deep-rooted. According to The Financial Times’ foreign investments monitor ‘fDi markets’, Chinese companies invested in 19 projects in the IT and electronics sector in 2019 alone.

The Chinese are highly strategic in investing money in foreign countries, with most of their investments in IT and apps, being placed in service-related software and apps. Chinese investment giants like Alibaba group, Tencent, Steadview Capital and Didi Chuxing dominate investments in most of the successful startups in India.

Companies like BigBasket, Zomato, Delhivery, Byju’s, Flipkart, Make My Trip, Paytm, Policy Bazaar and Swiggy have millions of dollars in Chinese investments. Chinese companies concentrate on these apps, which provide various services to the common people, in order to penetrate better into the market by making a bigger impact in the day-to-day lives of people.

Moreover, Chinese smartphones dominate the Indian market with over 70% of the mobiles being sold belonging to Chinese companies. Vivo, Oppo, OnePlus, Xiaomi and Realme are the leading Chinese smartphone brands in India. In 2019, Xiaomi alone had over 27-28% of the Indian smartphone market, while Vivo and Oppo had a 15-17% share.

Whose Loss?

The ban is estimated to deeply impact China. According to a Global Times — a part of the Chinese state-run media, report, ByteDance, the parent company of the TikTok and Helo apps, could lose up to $6 billion (Rs 45,000 crore) due to India switching them off. The report further said TikTok was downloaded 112 million times in May, which is double of that downloaded in the US.

The presence of Chinese investors in India’s startup ecosystem has not only benefitted Unicorn companies in getting funds but also a lot of cutting-edge technology was brought into the country. For instance, payment app Paytm, cab aggregator Ola and food delivery app Zomato have all received funds from Chinese venture capital firms. Targeting Chinese-made or Chinese-backed apps could pose a threat to the technology-based startup ecosystem, which still doesn’t enjoy the confidence of Indian investors.

It is a well-known fact that though India produces the best tech talent, many of them choose to work in Silicon Valley, chasing Dollar Dreams. The trend of good talent migrating to Silicon Valley is an old one yet its magic does not seem to fade away, resulting in a domestic shortage of tech talent. Now with banning of apps, the risk of the remaining indigenous talent looking for opportunities abroad looms large.

Desi Dash 

With apps like TikTok, SHAREit and Cam Scanner being pulled off the application stores on both Apple and Android, now is the golden hour for local developers to make their moves. Riding the wave of emotions, some desi developers seem to have started working on making clones of the extremely popular Chinese apps, which may well remain unavailable for quite some time.

However, experts claim that these ‘clones’ could prove to be more dangerous than the original, which have been barred for snooping information, defeating the whole purpose of the prohibition. They also feel that the local-made apps, like Chingari that is now replacing TikTok, have no core values and have loose ends, throwing the users’ privacy concerns down the drain.

“With apps like Facebook and Google, keeping ones privacy intact to a large extent is possible. All one has to do is deny the apps permissions in privacy settings to access tools like cameras and microphones in order to keep private conversations private,” says tech expert Anil Rachamalla. The same is not possible with Indian-developed apps that provide no such options.

Rachamalla also suggests the need for developing a dedicated grievance redressal cell for tech-related issues so that any illegal activity, if suspected by users, could be brought to notice. “The IT cell in India is toothless at the moment. It has no authority to act tough on any kind of complaints,” says Rachamalla stressing the importance of setting up a body that can take action on those misusing technology.

Similarly, Pavan Duggal, a cyber-law expert, points out that “banning or blocking apps is only a starting point, not the endgame journey. There are a huge number of Chinese mobile phones which are being used by Indians and they continue to transmit data outside India, particularly to China.”

We Too Pay 

Bringing bans into force, employing boycotts as a means of registering strong disapproval and conveying an expression of protest have been a huge part of Indian nationalism from the pre-independence era. Therefore, the ban on mobile applications does not really come as a surprise and many are not just welcoming it but also celebrating it.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that some of these apps had become indispensable for smartphone users and some like TikTok had reached a stage where they were helping several users earn their daily bread. So, what is the cost of this ban? Moreover, don’t other foreign apps snoop? Don’t Indian apps snoop? With the Chinese role being stunted, will our tech innovations suffer, for no one disputes Chinese role in improving the tech game? It is a difficult choice. But for now, welcome to the Pandora’s box!

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