On July 17, MeitY’s Cyber Laws and e-Security wing issued a notice to TikTok and Helo, asking them to respond to concerns that they were being used to commit anti-India and unlawful activities, Business Today reported. The ministry has sent the platforms a list of questions and warned them that they may face action or be banned if the ministry doesn’t get an appropriate response. The questionnaire covered a range of issues, including unauthorised data sharing, anti-national activities on the platform, and Helo paying a huge sum for putting 11,000 morphed political ads on other social media platforms.

The notices are in response to RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s letter to the prime minister that called for a ban on the two apps, claiming that TikTok had become a hub for “anti-national content” that was capable of disrupting the “fabric of our society”. In a joint statement to MediaNama, TikTok and Helo said “we take our responsibilities to this community seriously and welcome this opportunity to fully collaborate with the Government to meet and exceed our obligations”.

The ministry has asked the app makers to submit their response to the questions on or before July 22, 2019. MeitY has asked the apps the following in the questionnaire:

  1. Whether the apps are collecting excessive data, and what type of data they’re collecting,
  2. Whether data is being stored in China, and
  3. How the apps can ensure that the data will not be transferred to a foreign government, third party, or private entity in the future

SJM national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan, who wrote the letter, alleged that Helo had spent ₹7 crore on more than 11,000 morphed political advertisements. “Some of these ads were using morphed pictures of senior Indian political leaders,” he claimed. “Functionaries of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] themselves wrote to the EC [Election Commission] during the last General Election raising these concerns.” He also demanded a ban on all Chinese apps, including TikTok and Helo, in the country. “As some segments of the Chinese establishment have negative intentions with regard to the sovereignty and integrity of India,” he said.

Full joint statement by TikTok and Helo:

“We are grateful for the immense support given to us by India’s growing digital community. India is one of our strongest markets and we are happy to be part of the mainframe of Digital India in 15 Indian languages. In line with our commitment to India, we are investing $1 billion dollars in India over the next three years, with a strategic focus on developing technology infrastructure, establishing local partnerships and supporting initiatives such as the Skill India Program which we are proud to be assisting with already.

“Our continued success in India will not be possible without the support of our local community. We take our responsibilities to this community seriously and welcome this opportunity to fully collaborate with the Government to meet and exceed our obligations.”

Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s letter to the prime minister

Here is a copy of the letter that the RSS backed organisation sent to the prime minister:

Swadeshi Jagran Manch
“Dharamakshetra, Sector-8, R.K. Puram, New Delhi Ph. 011-26184595,
13th July, 2019
To
Subject: Request for banning Chinese social media platforms TikTok, Helo and others
Respected Narendra Modi Ji,
The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India
Government of India, New Delhi.

Following up on our letter to you dated 18th February 2019, I am writing again to highlight the concerns around various Chinese social media applications like TikTok and others operating in India. ByteDance, a Chinese company has been operating TikTok and Helo apps in India. These apps are exposing India’s youth to being influenced by vested interests at an early stage. News reports widely report that ByteDance today pays these ‘influencers’ to run campaigns promoting products, issues and ideologies. As a result, they under the cover of a social media platform – run news, views, and opinion platforms. While we have extensive regulation on foreign funding in media, these applications under the garb of social media platforms circumvent our domestic rules that exist to protect national security. Chinese technology companies have historically shared a close relationship with the Chinese government.

1. Studies (paywall) have noted that as recently as March 2019 they have shared data with ‘China Telecom’, a state-owned Chinese telecommunication company.

2. Their recent press statement after statements in the Indian parliament notes that they do not have any ‘existing partnership’ with China Telecom. However, they do not clarify if they have any ‘existing partnerships’ with other State- Owned Entities or other arrangements, which allows the Chinese government to directly, or indirectly get access to data of foreign citizens. ByteDance’ track record with protecting privacy, especially those of children is poor. The Federal Trade Commission of the United States just this year penalized the company’s USD 5.7 million for illegally collecting information.

3. In recent weeks TikTok has become a hub for anti-national content that is being shared extensively on the application.

4. This can cause ruptures in the fabric of our society. We have been notified of videos advocating views that promote religious violence, anti – Harijan sentiments, and mistreatment of women. There have also been various instances of deaths being caused due to TikTok across India.

5. A study found that on an average, these apps transfer data to around seven outside agencies, with 69% of the data being transferred to the US. TikTok sends data to China Telecom; Vigo Video to Tencent; BeautyPlus to Meitu; and QQ and UC Browser to its parent owned by Alibaba. In 2019, Helo was found to be paying for over 11,000 morphed political ads on other social media platforms worth Rs. 7 Crore. Some of these ads were using morphed pictures of senior Indian political leaders. Functionaries of the BJP themselves wrote to the EC during the last general election raising these concerns. It is well known that some segments of the Chinese establishment have negative intentions with regard to the sovereignty and integrity of India. The combination of apps such as TikTok and interventions by their government can be used to gain access to the private lives of Indian citizens and create social turmoil. This is not without foundations in fact. A recent study done by a cyber security company for the Economic Times demonstrated that Tiktok and Helo wanted 45% more permissions than other similar applications. We can only imagine what these permissions are being used for.

6. Again, statements recorded in the press by ByteDance functionaries show their willingness to cooperate with their government to aid their goals. Some eminent global researchers have also stated that ByteDance could impact and influence on foreign public opinion. In their own words, they could compel ByteDance to tweak its algorithms to boost certain candidates’ chances.

7. Currently India does not have any regulations to ensure that applications provided on the Android or Apple Play Store are monitored and illicit activity is prevented. To prevent such applications from operating in India, we would humbly request the creation of a new law that requires testing and also regulation to protect our national security as well as the privacy of Indian users from countries with inimical interests to India. Until such a law is notified, all such Chinese applications including TikTok and Helo should be banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In this regard we believe that the Indian government should take necessary steps that would involve banning such apps. We need to ensure that Indian startups are not hurt by such Chinese companies which are flush with cash and would harm the Indian start up ecosystem, our data sovereignty and most importantly our national security.
We look forward to strict action from your office in this regard.

With best regards,
Dr. Ashwani Mahajan
All India Co-convener