India Needs Strong Tech Policy & Regulations, Not Ban on Chinese Apps
Calling app ban a “digital strike” was meant to assuage domestic sentiment, but it was also a message to Beijing.
In June last year, the Indian government’s decision to block 59 Chinese apps was greeted with much fanfare in the media.
The official rationale behind this, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had explained then, was that these products were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”
Following this, there were three more rounds of such bans targeting Chinese apps, taking the total number of apps banned to 267. Earlier this year, reports indicated that the government had asked companies like ByteDance, Tencent and Alibaba to respond to a list of queries. Not satisfied with their response, it has persisted with the ban.
Why Ban Only Chinese Apps?
From an analytical perspective, there is, of course, a case to be made with regard to matters of data security, storage and access, issues of public order and content moderation policies, and the threat of foreign influence operations. These are broader policy matters that need not be limited to discussion over Chinese products.
However, given the historically difficult and increasingly volatile nature of the India-China relationship along with the evident strategic contest brewing around emerging technologies, China is likely to remain a key factor in these decisions.
In addition, there is also a case to be made about the principle of reciprocity, particularly when it comes to Chinese applications. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments have been made well by the government in public at least.
App Ban a 'Response' to Clashes in Galwan?
This is perhaps largely because the app ban decision was not part of a thought-through approach towards digital governance, security and the strategic environment. Rather, it was a response to the Galwan Valley clashes, which led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers.
While terming the ban a “digital strike” was hyperbolic and meant to assuage domestic sentiment, it was clear that the Indian government was also trying to send a message to Beijing.
The ban was a signalling of intent by New Delhi that tensions along the boundary would impact other areas of the India-China relationship. This has since been repeatedly underscored by the Indian foreign minister.
Consequently, a reassessment of the decision is unlikely unless there is evident disengagement along the friction points in Eastern Ladakh.
Fallout of the Ban
There have, of course, been certain negative and positive downstream effects of the app-ban decision. On the negative side, for instance, TikTok has reportedly cut the size of its Indian workforce. The ban on the short-video app also hit performers, artists, entertainers and educators across India, who had used the platform so effectively to earn a name and income. At the same time, Indian students enrolled in Chinese universities who are unable to travel to the country due to the pandemic situation have struggled to remain connected due to the difficulty in accessing Chinese platforms.
While it’s unclear whether these effects were considered as part of the decision-making, what’s clear is that the dispersed nature of the negative consequences means that any political fallout was unlikely to be unmanageable.
Opportunity for Indian Tech to Grow
On the positive side, the market - much like nature - abhors a vacuum, and in a fairly short period of time, several different alternatives have sprung up for the banned Chinese apps.
Another key consequence of the decision to ban the apps was that it created momentum for the government to act more decisively on matters of technology security and strategy related to China. For the longest time, the government had been indecisive about the issue of permitting Chinese telecommunications firms a role in building India’s 5G ecosystem. This was the case despite the challenges and threats being apparent.
Surely, if some of these apps posed a national security threat, then the 5G issue was an open and shut case, particularly when it comes to core systems. One can view the telecom ministry’s May 2021 decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials in this context.
In addition, the China factor has been critical in India’s willingness and promptness to deepen engagement with the Quad countries – USA, Australia, India and Japan. The establishment of the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group after the leaders’ summit in March this year was a step in this direction, which can potentially have strategic implications.
However, if this decision to ban Chinese apps has to have a long-term, legacy impact, then it is imperative that the Indian government prioritises key regulatory issues at home.
For instance, it is important to come up with clear definitions about what constitutes critical personal data and rules with regard to storage and access. Such regulation is critical to ensure that market players have regulatory clarity and procedural certainty in order to operate with confidence. It also eliminates adhocism in decision-making by setting governance standards and norms, which is critical if India has to engage in shaping global digital rules.
(The author is a Fellow, China Studies at Takshashila Institution. He tweets @theChinaDude. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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