The biggest casualty in the fresh round of bans – a total of 106 apps had already been blocked in two separate decisions over the last couple of months – is PUBG, the world’s most lucrative mobile game whose largest subscriber base is in India. Indeed, last year, when a mother had complained to PM Narendra Modi about her son’s online gaming adiction during his ‘Pariksha pe charcha’ event, the PM had quipped, “Yeh PUBG wala hain kya (does he play PUBG)?”
The total number of Chinese apps that have been banned in India now stands at 224 and there are indications that more may follow.
The latest decision, which was widely expected in view of the tough stance of the government against Chinese-controlled entities, squeezes the dominance of China in the Indian internet and apps space and deals their global valuations another blow. They include such popular apps as TikTok, UC Browser, Helo, Likee, Shareit, Mi Community, WeChat, Baidu, CamScanner, and now PUBG.
Saying the move would safeguard the interests of crores of Indian mobile and internet users, the government termed the decision “a targeted move to ensure safety, security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) said that it 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 unauthorised 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 government said in the order which widens the ambit against the Chinese internet establishments.
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Apart from gaming, many of the apps that have been banned are from random categories such as utility; business and communication; camera and photo-editing; entertainment and dating; productivity; and news. These include AliPay; Ludo World; Rise of Kingdoms; WeChat Work; Baidu Express Edition; Amour Video Chat; Beauty Camera Plus; MV Master. Also, some VPN for TikTok have also been banned.
However, while the app ban is being seen as a fresh assault by the Indian establishment against Chinese online businesses, a section of internet and civil society activists termed the measure as “arbitrary and opaque”, alleging that the move has been taken in a non-transparent manner.
“There is little in terms of evidence on how these apps are threatening the sovereignty, integrity, and defence of India,” Gurshabad Grover, research manager at Centre for Internet and Society, told TOI. “Arbitrary government power has been exercised here. Remember, if today Chinese apps can be banned, tomorrow nothing stops them from banning Indian apps in a similar non-transparent manner.”
Udbhav Tiwari, Public Advisor at Mozilla, also raised similar concerns. “Unless there is greater public transparency, it is difficult to gauge how they infringe the sovereignty of India. While they there may be risks of data collection, these exist for apps from many other countries as well. We should strive towards greater accountability and judicial oversight in such decisions,” he said.
Kazim Rizvi, founder of policy think-tank The Dialogue, said that India currently lacks a robust cyber security regime. “Ideally, an independent data protection authority ought to assess apps which violate individual privacy and threaten national security,” he said.
The government was, however, clear that violations were happening due to the apps and national security threats exist. It said the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre in the ministry of home affairs had also sent an exhaustive recommendation for blocking the “malicious” apps. “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.”
The government said it has received “recent credible inputs” that information posted, permissions sought, functionality embedded as well as data harvesting practices of the banned apps raise “serious concerns that these apps collect and share data in surreptitious manner and compromise personal data and information of users that can have a severe threat to security of the state.”
Watch Centre bans 118 Chinese apps including PUBG