On 29 June 2020, the Government of India declared that 59 smartphone applications available for use in India would henceforth be banned. The reasoning behind this step can be broadly summed under three heads – a violation of privacy and data security standards, covert transfer of data, and use of such data for activities which are prejudicial to India’s national security. This declaration by the Government came in the form of a Press Release with an Annexure listing the Apps. Most of these Apps, on record, belong to Singaporean origin, with strong Chinese investments. The Chinese connection of a majority of these Apps hints at a strategic retaliation connected to the Galwan Valley clashes between India and China.
Two weeks since the decision to ban these Apps, we attempted to understand the accessibility to these Apps. Technological soundness in India might not allow the numerous users in the country to adapt to the use of Virtual Private Networks or other technically complicated methods. We attempted to analyse the effectiveness of this ban and the ease of alternate access to the same through simple browser searches. The wide adoption of smartphones and the availability of browsers guided our research.
Out of the 59 Apps that are banned, 39 had websites/web pages dedicated to themselves. While 13 of these were blocked, seemingly as a part of the ban, others were still functional.
Out of the 26 accessible websites, the access they provided differed in terms of functionality. Four of these websites achieved almost completely the same purpose as the apps, which rendered them completely substitutable through browser use. Five of these websites provided mechanisms to replicate complete functionality on desktops. This could be used by desktop owners to continue to access these platforms. Eleven of these websites offered limited functionality, as they continued to allow user engagement, not necessarily replicating the purpose of the complementing App. Six of these, however, were mere web-pages that directed towards downloading of these Apps and offered no functionality.
Cumulatively, out of 59 banned apps, nine have fully functional alternatives- four of which are universally available and five available on desktops. It is worth noting, that in some way or the other, websites dedicated to twenty of these apps still allow user interaction through this medium. Hence, the objective of the app ban to prevent any collection of data might not be achieved as yet. These functional websites still allow data collection, hence leaving a void on the reasoning behind the app ban.
Note: These results correspond to the websites accessible over ACT Fibernet in Bengaluru, Karnataka as on 14th July 2020.
Along with this analysis, we understand that holistically viewing this move is of prime importance. While there have been other instances of such App bans, both worldwide and within the country, it could be termed the first of its nature due to the apparent close link between tensions in International relations and the App ban. It is also surprising that the details of a step of this gravity with possibilities of wide implications were shared through a Press Release.
We acknowledge the sensitive nature of the issue at hand and hence try to present the multiple legal and policy issues to be considered as India takes this major step, which can have effects on the shaping of technology regulation, as well as technology policy world over. The attached document gives a detailed account of the multiple legal and policy considerations that could bear the effects of this move. We acknowledge that concerns about relations with other countries and major businesses which operate from them do become a matter of importance. However, for the purpose of this document, the analysis has been limited to Indo-China relations.
Please read the TikTok Brief: Understanding the App Ban 360° here.