An Indian think tank has alleged that short video application Snack Video is actually just a rebranded version of Kwai — one of the 59 ‘Chinese’ apps that was banned in India in June. The think tank — Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research (C-DEP) — also alleged that Snack Video acquires user permissions that grant it access to critical and sensitive personal data, and doesn’t protect underage users from data acquisition and leakage, among other things. Snack Video, at the moment is among the most popular short video apps in the country — if it were to be banned, a number of Indian short video apps stand to gain from it.
C-DEP, on October 21, wrote a letter to the Home and IT ministries highlighting some of its concerns about Snack Video. Jaijit Bhattacharya, C-DEP’s president, confirmed the development to MediaNama, along with the authenticity of the letter. We have reached out to MEITY and Home Ministry enquiring whether they will investigate the veracity of accusations made by C-DEP against Snack Video.
Who stands to gain from this?
Snack Video has more than 100 million downloads on the Google Play Store alone, dwarfing many competitors available in the country. A number of Indian short video apps such as ShareChat’s Moj, Times Group’s MX TakaTak only have half as many downloads on the Google Play Store. Some other Indian short video apps such as Chingari, with just 10 million downloads on Play Store, are even further behind. These apps would inevitably benefit if the government acts on C-DEP’s letter and takes down Snack Video.
A highly placed source at one of the most popular Indian short video apps told MediaNama, on the condition of anonymity, that “if you look at the ecosystem, when the ban happened in June, Snack Video was nowhere in the picture. In India it was available as Kwai. However, after the ban, when we last checked Kwai’s mobile website, it had a link which was taking us to Snack Video’s app page,” this person said. Incidentally, C-DEP makes the same accusation against Snack Video in its letter to the government (more on that below).
This person said that after the ban, an official from the IT Ministry said that none of these apps would be allowed to operate in India just by rebranding themselves, again, mirroring C-DEP’s accusation that Snack Video is a rebranded version of Kwai.
“Since the ban, Snack Video started putting out a lot of digital ads, and if you look at some of their ads on Twitter, these ads have very sleazy and vulgar content,” this person told us. He claimed that Snack Video has amassed a sizeable user base — an estimated 40-50 million daily active users — with the help of these “sleazy” ads.
When asked if this person’s company had any influence in sending this letter to the government, he said that “we don’t know if the government is aware of these activities [of Snack Video]. This is the first time a formal complaint has been lodged against the app”. However, they added that “there was no connection with us”, and that there are “certain think tanks” that want to have a say in India’s digital ecosystem.
Accusations made by C-DEP against Snack Video
C-DEP accused Snack Video’s creators of being close to the Chinese administration, called in question its data practices, and alleged that Kwai and Snack Video have common employees. The organisation also said that Kwai’s mobile website was accessible even after the ban, however, when we tried accessing it, we couldn’t access it. When we asked Bhattacharya about this, he said that C-DEP noted that “since yesterday [October 22], the website is not available in India. Given the time the browsers took to respond that the site is not available in India, it is clear that the blocking has been done recently, as the information has not yet been replicated to all the DNS. We had tried to access the website till the time of sending the letter and it was accessible”. C-DEP’s accusations:
- Questionable data practices: Snack Video app takes permissions to view, store and collect all photo, media and files on a user’s device with modifying and deletion capabilities, the letter said. It also takes several “security sensitive” and intrusive permissions such as to record audio on its own, geographic location, and complete network access — which allows it to view the network connections and wifi connections, it added. “The app can also download files without user notification (which is a grave security threat)”.
- ‘Doesn’t protect children’s interests’: The letter alleged that Snack Video doesn’t protect children’s interests, and while it claims that users below 18 years of age aren’t permitted on the platform, “we note that several users exists who are children”. “The app has no features to implement its own policy to protect children’s interests,” it added.
- When we asked Bhattacharya about how C-DEP ascertained that the app had underage users, he told us: “we found that based on checking with school going children. In the small random sample, we found a few children using the app. Also, the platform has significant number of pictures and videos of underaged users”.
- Accused the app of Chinese ownership: Relying on an article by South China Morning Post, the letter claimed that Snack Video is a short video application operated by Symphony Tech Pte. Ltd. which is based in Singapore, but is owned by Beijing Kuaishou Technology Co., Ltd.
- It also claimed that Snack Video was developed by Cheng Yixiao and Su Hua, who are both Chinese citizens. Relying on a Quartz report, the letter said the founders have assisted “The People’s Daily”, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, to develop a short video streaming platform named People’s Daily. It also alleged that Su Hua leads a Communist Party of China branch.
- App is regulated by Chinese laws: As an application with headquarters in China and Chinese employees and management, Snack Video is regulated by Chinese national security laws, the letter alleged, adding that these laws require its citizens and companies to support the state in intelligence gathering activities.
- ‘Seemingly’ censors content: “If you search the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s name on the app, then all the content available is sarcastic and criticising him,” C-DEP alleged, and added that the app has no videos on Tibet or other sensitive matters of Indian policy as well. However, when MediaNama searched for PM Modi’s name, we found that the top results weren’t about criticising him, or sarcastic towards him — on the contrary there were videos about the Indian Army with motivational music in the background.
- Bhattacharya told us that C-DEP searched for the terms ‘Prime Minister Modi’ and ‘Narendra Modi’. He said that he will share the videos in question with MediaNama at a later time.
- Kwai and Snack Video have common employees: The letter said that from the date Kwai was banned in India, all employees of Kwai now call themselves as employees of Snack Video. “Therefore it is clear that Snack Video is simply a new wine in an old bottle, created to circumvent the government of India’s orders”. The letter included screenshots of two such employees with their personal details anonymised, however, MediaNama couldn’t ascertain the authenticity of these screenshots.