A petition filed in the Supreme Court wants smartphone manufacturers to disclose all pre-installed apps in the outer packaging in major regional languages, Live Law reported. The petitioner also wants the data protection practices of Chinese smartphone companies to be investigated. The plea reportedly expresses concerns about Indians’ privacy that might be jeopardised through data collected by pre-installed apps in smartphones manufactured by Chinese companies.

The petitioner, Jatin Rana,represented by advocate Wajeeh Shafiq, wants broader regulation of pre-installed apps and wants the apex court to:

  • Direct the central government to create a mechanism for regulation of smartphone apps. Rana wants the apex court to direct the central government to formulate guidelines to bring such disclosures into effect.  Smartphone manufacturers would also need to show how they use data collected from Indian citizens and whether they can protect the data of Indian users from falling into the hands of those who may misuse it. Additionally, the disclosures by manufacturers should include the user data such apps have access to, how the data is stored, who has access to it, and what it is likely to be used for.
  • Direction to Google to make efforts to eliminate unwanted pre-installed apps and further update their Android system to identify such apps. It is interesting that the petition does not seem to talk about iOS, especially because most iPhones are manufactured and assembled in China.

It is understood that the petition cites multiple news reports that Xiaomi and other Chinese smartphone companies practice data collection. The petition has also cited the Indian government’s bans of over apps by Chinese companies citing security and sovereignty of India. Rana has also invoked the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, stating that pre-installed apps are not in line with consumer rights granted under the act, such as the right to be protected against marketing of goods that are hazardous to life and property of a consumer, right to be informed, right to choose, and right to consumer education and awareness.

The plea also cited a letter by over 50 privacy advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Privacy International that had asked Google to protect users from pre-installed apps coming on “new” Android smartphones. In a letter sent to Sundar Pichai in January, the privacy groups had flagged that pre-installed apps on smartphones deploying Android “can leave users vulnerable to their data being collected, shared and exposed without their knowledge or consent”.

Increased protectionism, apps banned after Indo-China tensions

Since the first Indo-China clash in Galwan valley in June, the Indian government has banned 224 apps that originate in China, including the wildly popular short-video app TikTok and gaming app PUBG. The government has blocked the apps for allegedly being engaged in activities which are “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.

There has also been increased protectionism in the Indian digital industry regarding China’s interests in the country. Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury ha called for building an “impregnable firewall” to counter “digital aggression” by China.

Before the flare-ups on the Indo-China border, the Indian government had in April already restricted investments China’s investments and acquisitions in India, in a bid to fend off takeovers of Indian startups weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. An Indian traders’ body has called on the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to investigate Chinese investments in 141 Indian start-ups, including unicorns like Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato.

Google’s dominance comes under scrutiny in India

Google has found itself under sudden scrutiny after it announced stringent enforcement of its billing system on Google Play Store, which would result in the company pocketing a 30% commission on all in-app purchases. While Google soon granted Indian companies an extra six months to comply with the system, the Indian government as well as Indian startup founders have sprung into action, holding virtual meetings to discuss issues. In a call with startups founders held in early October, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) had asked for a compilation of all the issues around the dominance of Google and other large platforms operating in India.

In another meeting, Indian start-up founders had expressed their frustration and anger at the development, and considered various next steps such as creating their own app store, complaining to the competition regulator, and forming an Indian Internet Founders association, among other things.

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