Bengaluru: Applications such as TikTok were removed from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store in India after the government’s ban on it. 

What is the legal basis for India’s action?

The ban has been enforced under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“Power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource”): “Where the Central Government or any of its officers specially authorised by it… is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may… by order, direct any agency of the Government or intermediary to block for access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource.”
The Ministry of Information and Technology has said that it “has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps… for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”. Since this “ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures”, it has said.

How will the ban be enforced?

The notification is expected to be followed by instructions to Internet service providers to block these apps. Users are likely to soon see a message saying access to the apps has been restricted on the request of the government.
However, while this will impact apps like TikTok and UC News that need a live feed to serve any purpose, users might still be able to continue using apps that don’t need an active Internet connection to be used. But further downloads of these apps, like CamScanner, are to be blocked on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store.

What are the data security concerns mentioned above?

Intelligence reports had earlier rung the alarm bell over 53 apps "extracting data to entities outside the country".

Take the case of TikTok. It has been facing scrutiny in the European Union over data concerns. Bloomberg reported that EU authorities were, in May, investigating the app after the data-protection commission in the Netherlands opened a probe into the company’s policies to protect children’s data, saying the app is “clearly loved” by Dutch kids. The Beijing-based company had rejected claims it is being controlled by the Chinese government, or that data privacy was an issue.

A recent report by Telegraph had claimed that several apps, including TikTok, were caught accessing data on the clipboard of iOS14. "A security patch from Apple has suddenly exposed just how many smartphone apps are reading users' clipboards every time they are on screen," according to the publication. TikTok had responded to the report saying an updated version was already in place. "For TikTok, this was triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behaviour. We have already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion," TikTok stated.

What happens next? Should you uninstall TikTok and other Chinese apps mentioned?

What happens next remains to be seen. However, a likely scenario:

Under section 69A, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be asked to block all of these apps. Google and Apple will be served notices to remove them from their online app stores. This invalidates the use of apps like TikTok which need an internet connection to operate; their use will be blocked. 

For apps and functionalities that can work offline, the situation is a little more tricky. It is highly likely that further downloads will be blocked, and existing users could be served an advisory to refrain from using the applications further.

What are some similar apps that can be used?

There are numerous home-grown alternatives that can provide an option to the Indian audience. Take the case of 'Chingari', a TikTok alternative that has crossed more than 2.5 million downloads. The short video-sharing app reached the milestone from 5,50,000 downloads in just ten days, the free social platform said in a statement last week. 

Chingari said it allows a user to download and upload videos, chat with friends, interact with new people, share content and browse through feed. “Chingari pays a content creator on the basis of how viral the video becomes. For every video that one uploads on the Chingari app, you get points [per view] which can be redeemed for money," the statement added. The app is available in multiple languages including English, Hindi, Bangla, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. ShareChat is also an Indian vernacular social media platform, that has garnered huge popularity. 

Will the ban be permanent?

TikTok was banned in India for a few days last year, but came back soon after once the court vacated the ban. However, this time the action is more sweeping and impacts more apps, so it remains to be seen if it has a permanent nature. This could also be a warning to larger Chinese business in India given the prevailing stalemate between the two Asian giants.

Banning 59 mobile apps that have Chinese overhang is both a statement of intent and a strong signal. This may not hurt India given the alternatives in the app space but for China, the Indian app market is growing and valuable. More so because internet costs here are one of the lowest in the world, and consumers number over 800 million. Nearly half of these smartphone users are below 25 and hungry for content on their devices.

This is probably the first big action that hits Chinese business interests in India. Two months ago, in April, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, made it mandatory for foreign direct investment from neighbouring countries to take prior government approval. This was also aimed at curbing opportunistic takeovers/ acquisitions of Indian companies during times of the Covid-19 pandemic, when valuations were at new lows.