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China’s Tencent is controlling PUBG from background, says NGO calling for another ban

Rebranding efforts haven’t helped PUBG stay away from the spotlight after being banned by the Indian government.

Prahar, a non-profit organisation, has urged the Indian government to ban Battlegrounds Mobile India (BGMI) under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, news agency PTI and Economic Times reported. In its letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology (MeitY), the NGO alleged that the game poses a threat to the country.

It also alleged that the Chinese multinational conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd still had a stake in the rebranded version of PUBG (BGMI) that was launched in 2021 after the Indian government banned the original along with other Chinese apps in 2020.

“In less than a year, PUBG was re-introduced in India by a front company of Tencent — Krafton under the new name of BGMI — a move that was clearly meant to circumvent the Indian policymakers.” — Prahar as quoted by PTI

Although various reports cited that Prahar was located in Assam, when MediaNama contacted the NGO based in the northeastern state, it denied having made any such representation. We also reached out to a New Delhi-based NGO with the same name and will update this post if a response is received.

This isn’t the first time that questions have been raised over Korean company Krafton’s ties with Tencent, in relation to the rebranded version of PUBG.

China’s Tencent still holds stake in PUBG: Prahar

Prahar reportedly said that Tencent Holdings has a 15.5% stake in Krafton. It pointed out that Tencent also has an 18.7% stake in Garena Free Fire, a popular battle royale game that was recently banned in the country. The Free Fire ban has since led to the Singaporean government seeking clarity from the Indian government.

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“[…] Tencent holds additional interests in promoter’s various businesses, through private deals hidden from the public, giving them extraordinary control on Krafton….. Free Fire was another gaming app that was banned on 14 February. Since Tencent also holds 18.7%. share in Free Fire, it raises a basic question: if Free Fire was banned, why was BGMI PUBG exempted?” Prahar was quoted by ET as saying. (emphasis ours)

In its IPO prospectus too, Krafton acknowledged its strategic partnership with Tencent, and the two companies together fought and won lawsuits in federal courts of the US and Germany in January 2022, the letter by Prahar also reportedly said.

“We therefore request your ministry to include Chinese app BGMI-PUBG among the list of banned apps in India under Section 69A of the IT Act in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, and public order and save millions of unsuspecting players from falling prey into the Chinese trap.” — Prahar as quoted by PTI

Battlegrounds Mobile India pinging servers in China?

In 2021, as the rebranded Battlegrounds Mobile India rolled out to more users, one of them sniffed the data packets from the app and discovered that the app was pinging China Mobile servers located in Beijing, according to a report by IGN India.

The report also said that the app was pinging anti-cheat and cloud computing services run by Tencent, though it is not clear if these were also located in China. Meenakashi Lekhi, who was the chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 at the time, took note of this issue on Twitter and said that she would reach out to MeitY — which announced the PUBG Mobile ban in September 2020 — to look into the issue. The tweet has since been deleted.

On relaunch, user data was transferred from Tencent version

In 2021, when the relaunch was announced, it was reported that player data was transferred from the Tencent version to the Krafton version. The data transfer notice included an exhaustive list of what is and isn’t transferred from the Tencent version of the game. To agree to the data transfer, users had to accept the new app’s terms and conditions and consent to a carry-forward of their existing data.

The data transfer could only be initiated with Facebook or Twitter logins. The notice did not explicitly mention who was the custodian of the prior version’s data. Users’ phone numbers and email-linking information had not been transferred but in-game progress and inventory were largely carried forward.

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Timeline of PUBG Mobile/Battlegrounds Mobile India ban

  • August 2020: Krafton, the Korean company that owns PUBG and develops the game for PC and consoles, meets with Indian embassy officials to discuss the company’s plans in India.
  • September 2020:Days after Indian and Chinese troops face off at the border, the game is banned in India along with other Chinese-developed apps. Soon after, Tencent’s publishing rights for the game are terminated, and Krafton, the Korean company which owns the brand, takes over.
  • November 2020: Krafton signs a pact with Microsoft to use Azure servers in India for supporting the game. Soon after, the company announces an intent to invest US$100 million in its operations in the country, and that it will launch a renamed version of the game, PUBG Mobile India, with censored visuals. MeitY maintains a silence on the relaunchrefusing to approve or explicitly block the move.
  • May 2021: After months of inactivity and shelved marketing promotions, Krafton announces yet another renaming drive, calling the game Battlegrounds Mobile India, retaining much of PUBG’s key art and gameplay. No release date is announced. Former MLA and Union Minister of State Ninong Ering asks the government to thwart the relaunch, a demand that is backed by members of both the BJP and the Congress.
  • June 2021: After a pre-registration drive in May, the game starts rolling out to some users.
  • July 2021: The game launches for Android users, with an option of transferring user data from the Tencent version for people who had played the banned version of the game.
  • March 2022: NGO calls on Indian government to ban Battlegrounds Mobile India.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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