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IT Parliamentary Standing Committee questions MEITY, MHA on ‘Chinese’ app ban, Aarogya Setu

china, tiktok banned
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

After a gap of four months, punctuated by Chairperson Shashi Tharoor’s repeated calls for virtual meetings, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology finally met in person on July 14. Of the 29 members, only eight members attended the meeting. Representations from MEITY and Ministry of Home Affairs were heard on Aarogya Setu and cybersecurity, Tharoor tweeted. It is understood that the ban on 59 ‘Chinese’ apps was extensively discussed at the meeting, which lasted almost three hours.

Which MPs attended the meeting? From Tharoor’s tweet, apart from him, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (BJP), Tejasvi Surya (BJP), Santosh Pandey (BJP), Bhanu Pratap Singh Verma (BJP), and Sanjay Seth (BJP) attended the meeting. The other two MPs in attendance were — Nishikant Dubey (BJP) and Anil Agarwal (BJP). Tharoor tweeted that many who wanted to participate were prevented from doing so by their respective state’s quarantine rules. Amar Patnaik, member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill, had told MediaNama of the same constraint that might prevent him from attending the JPC’s meeting on July 17.

What was discussed?

Two sources, on the condition of anonymity, told MediaNama that representatives from the MHA and MEITY told the MPs that the request to ban the 59 Chinese apps came from the MHA and MEITY implemented it. The initial government announcement of ban on apps had said that the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre within the MHA had recommended blocking these apps and that these were blocked under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Tharoor asked representatives from MHA and MEITY about the reasons for banning the apps but was told by Dubey that since it is a national security issue, the MPs could not ask more questions than the ministries were willing to answer. It appears that the seven MPs from BJP were in concurrence about not asking more questions related to this.

Tharoor singled out scanning app Cam Scanner, which is one of the 59 apps that was banned, saying that it is used by Gujarat Police, Maharashtra Police, and CBI, one of the sources told us. Thus, even if the app is banned now, the data has already gone to China, Tharoor said. In response, Dubey quipped in jest that since these law enforcement agencies investigate criminals, it will scare China since India has cases with 300 murders, 400 murders, cases related to Dawood Ibrahim, thereby creating psychological pressure on the country. This caused everyone in the room to laugh, we are told.

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Verma proposed that PUBG should be banned given its affect on the youth. The other BJP MPs voiced their support for the move.

Representatives from MEITY also mentioned how Aarogya Setu has been used to deal with the pandemic. They, according to the source, said that concerns around privacy are misguided and that the app is completely safe.

Who else was there?

Additional Secretary of the MHA was also present. In another photo that Tharoor tweeted, MEITY Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney is seen addressing the committee members as a “witness”. Rakesh Maheshwari, Senior Director and Group Coordinator, Cyber Law and e-Security at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), and the designated officer for implementation of Section 69A blocking orders is sitting behind him. Vikash Chourasia, Scientist C at MEITY and nodal officer for the data protection framework for India, is also visible.

MyGov CEO Abhishek Singh, who is also the public face of central government’s contact tracing app Aarogya Setu, is also visible in the photo.

***Update (2:23 pm): Updated with more details from the meeting. Originally published on July 15 at 1:20 pm.

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