The ban on 224 Chinese-owned apps was brought up in at least five different questions in Lok Sabha today a number of different ways. In at least three written answers, IT Minister of State Sanjay Dhotre, refused to name any country “in public domain” citing national security concerns when asked if all the apps where made Chinese companies. Here’s what Dhotre revealed about the situation:
- No proposal to ban all China-linked apps: In one response, Dhotre revealed that there is no proposal with the IT Ministry to ban all apps that are linked to China. The Ministry also does not have any information about the number of jobs lost or the financial cost of banning these 224 apps. Congress MP Anto Antony (Pathanamthitta, Kerala) had asked the question.
- No reports on whether the blocked apps are still available: In response to a set of questions by six MPs, Dhotre said that nobody had reported the availability of any of the blocked 224 apps to the IT Ministry. However, he also wrote that blocking access to apps “is a dynamic process”. BJP MPs Sukanta Majumdar (Balurghat, West Bengal), Vinod Kumar Sonkar (Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh), Bhola Singh (Begusarai, Bihar), Sangeeta Kumari Singh Deo (Bolangir, Odisha), Raja Amareshwara Naik (Raichur, Karnataka), and Jayanta Kumar Roy (Jalpaiguri, West Bengal) had asked the question.
- No proposal to exclude Chinese companies from 5G contracts: In the answer to the six BJP MPs, Dhotre revealed that the government is currently not considering any proposal to exclude Chinese companies out of 5G contracts. When the Department of Telecommunications had deposed before the IT Parliamentary Standing Committee in August, it had said that such a call would be taken by the Home Ministry after assessing national security concerns.
- No response on whether these apps “stole” user data: In response to a question by BJP MP Rakesh Singh about whether these apps “stole” user data and sent it outside India, Dhotre just quoted reasons for blocking as permitted under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This idea of data theft as a threat to national security has permeated much of the global discussion around Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok, and rollout of 5G infrastructure and inclusion of Chinese companies therein. American President Donald Trump effectively banned TikTok and WeChat in the US citing similar concerns of “data theft”. Concerns around this kind of “data theft” have also plagued Zoom. In response to a question by YSRCP MP Kanumuru Raghu Rama Krishna Raju (Narsapuram, Andhra Pradesh), Dhotre disclosed that there is no proposal with the IT Ministry to ban Zoom though he acknowledged that the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) has issued a number of advisories related to Zoom.
- Government received almost 7K applications through app challenge: In a question, six MPs asked about the steps that the government had taken under Digital India Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Innovate Challenge “to develop indigenous apps that will be as popular as Chinese apps considering the fact that India has significant social media users and apps”. This challenge, to promote existing Indian apps, and help in the development of new apps, was launched a mere week after the first set of 59 apps was banned. Dhotre just mentioned that 6,940 applications were received in this challenge, a fact that had been released by the government earlier as well. The question had been asked by NCP MPs Amol Ramsing Kohle (Shirur, Maharashtra) and Supriya Sule (Baramati, Maharashtra), Congress MPs Kuldeep Rai Sharma (Andaman and Nicobar Islands) and Manickam Tagore B. (Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu), DMK MP DNV Senthilkumar. S. (Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu), and BJP MP Subhash Ramrao Bhamre (Dhule, Maharashtra).
In the wake of clashes with the Chinese Army in May, the Indian government had blocked access to 59 apps, including TikTok, WeChat, Shein, Clash of Kings, etc., under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, saying that they were “engaged in activities which [are] prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. This was followed a month later by a ban on 47 apps that were essentially clones of the original 59. On September 2, the axe fell on another 118 apps, including PUBG. The first ban and the third ban were announced by the government through an official press release. Neither of the two press releases mentioned China.
- The beginnings of the Great Firewall of India?
- How does a Section 69A blocking order come into existence?
***Update (September 21, 2020 11:13 am): Added details about the MPs who asked the questions.. Originally published on September 16, 2020 at 6:52 pm.