Politics of Technology: The Case of India’s TikTok Ban

FRANCE-US-INTERNET-TECHNOLOGY

by Vartika Neeraj    29 July 2020

On 29th June 2020, The Ministry of Information Technology issued an interim order banning 59 Chinese mobile applications including Tik Tok, WeChat, UC Browser and SHAREit citing national security to be the key motivation for this move. The order stated that these platforms were engaged in activities “which were prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order”. They were deemed to be violating the privacy of Indian citizens by making data available to the Chinese government.

“For safety, security, defence, sovereignty & integrity of India and to protect data & privacy of people of India the Government has banned 59 mobile apps. Jai Hind!”
-Ravi Shankar Prasad (Law, Electronics and Information Technology Minister)

While the retaliation was overtly a show of strength against the recent Chinese offensive in Ladakh, it needs to be understood in the light of several national and international political developments that have laid the groundworks for such a ban.

1. The Context of National Politics

Anti-National TikTok
The development of the app-ban comes in the light of rising accusations around Chinese online services, most notably TikTok, engaging in ‘anti-national’ activities. The parliament echoed such concerns when Members of Parliament belonging to the ruling party made statements in session claiming that there is no guarantee that ByteDance does not have a relationship with the Chinese government. There have also been growing voices against TikTok for causing cultural degradation in the country. To that end, the Madras High Court banned the application in April 2020 with the belief that TikTok was spreading pornography, potentially exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting the mental health of its users

Moreover, there has been growing interest in the detrimental impact TikTok can have on electoral politics in India. Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor voiced this concern when he stated that social media platforms like TikTok that run a network of paid influencers can seriously “impact our democratic process”. There is some credibility to this concern as political advertisements on the platform have been on a rise despite the company’s official stance against this phenomenon. For instance, the #myfirstvoteformodi hashtag on TikTok around the general elections received over 1.5 million views and saw TikTok influencers reacting positively to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign song. However the problem of political advertisements is not exclusive to TikTok and extends to all social media platforms in the age of rampant digital campaigning. The Google Transparency Report claims that Indian parties spent over INR 30 billion on political advertisements across all google-owned services including YouTube.

Advancing ‘Make in India’

Prime Minister Modi announced the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ scheme as part of India’s COVID-19 national response. The plan essentially envisions a self-sustaining India without much dependence on external countries in terms of manufacturing and assembling goods. The current ban on Chinese apps can also be seen through this lens as a credible opportunity to build and promote ‘Made in India’ apps.

This speculation turned to reality when the prime minister announced the ‘Atmanirbhar Innovation Challenge’ on 4 July 2020 in partnership with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and NITI Aayog (India’s official developmental body). The challenge called on India’s technology innovators to create an Indian origin app ecosystem. It involves cash rewards and other incentives to promote existing Indian apps and help develop new ones across several categories including social networking and entertainment. The ‘make in India’ vision is already taking steps in the right direction as post-ban, the total user base in India for TikTok dropped to about 10% from 40% while Indian-origin Chingari and Mitron have grown to 5%, Roposo to around 7% and Sharechat to about 15%.

Thus we can see that a growing political sentiment condemning TikTok’s credibility and the ‘Make in India’ push form the backdrop of the blocking of these foreign applications. Such a prohibition has arguably soothed the growing dissent around TikTok as well as favoured the government’s ‘atmanirbhar’ mission.

  1. The Geopolitical Context

US-China Tech War
The current ban on Chinese apps in India has been received extremely positively by the US government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “we welcome India’s ban on certain mobile apps that serve as an appendage of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) surveillance state”. Such a reaction is expected when we acknowledge the cold war that the US and China have been involved in vis-a-vi establishing supremacy in the realm of technology. The most evident example of this clash has been around the rollout of 5G systems worldwide.  China has gained a head start in the development of 5G technology and Huawei promises to be the most advanced and economically viable option in this ecosystem.

The large scale applications possible for 5G network also means the network will support a consistent stream of sensitive information and data which currently cannot be regulated. It is with this background that the US has been attempting to reverse the Chinese lead in this technological race by convincing its allies that Chinese 5G technology is bound to undermine national security and share data with the country’s authoritarian rulers. While this concern is not completely unfounded especially in light of China’s national security frameworks such as the 2017 National Intelligence Law which mandates that companies are bound to provide assistance to national intelligence agencies– the fact remains that no 5G provider is systematically safe.

“By design all 5G systems are quite vulnerable, standardisation was not done securely. I have to say that for all telecom companies, you have to act [on 5G] on the basis of trust. It is the only thing you can do at this moment.”
-Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence (Finland)

The US has been exerting considerable influence to ensure that the latter does not win the battle of 5G. The US Federal Communications Commission has officially designated Huawei as a national security threat. It has also prompted its allies to implement similar bans on Chinese telecom providers through incentivisation and negative reinforcements. The US has gone as far as to say that it will rethink intelligence ties with its allies, should they choose to allow Huawei to function in their countries. Further, the country is also in discussions with Brazil’s government over providing funding to help the country’s operators purchase 5G network equipment from Ericsson and Nokia. While some countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada were quick to introduce such bans, others like the UK have reluctantly agreed to implement a multi-year phase out of Huawei technology.

Anti-China Sentiment during COVID-19

The move to ban 59 apps also comes in the middle of growing negative sentiment towards China because of the inceptionary role the country has played in the global healthcare crisis. China bears substantial responsibility for the worldwide lock-down and overwhelmed state capacities all around because of its reported mismanagement of the pandemic. There is consensus that the virus originated in China’s Wuhan and the responsible authorities failed to acknowledge the severity of the disease at an early stage. Even if the coronavirus crisis had remained within the country’s borders, the tactic that Chinese authorities used to try to contain it which involved quarantining large parts of the population and shutting down major parts of the economy would have imposed major losses on other countries, which depend heavily on supply chains that run through China. Given these developments, diminishing China’s global role has seemed all the more attractive to others. To that end, several companies are now considering shifting their business ties away from the People’s Republic of China and finding alternative partners. Therefore, the international and local acceptance of India’s move to ban Chinese apps in the country has been influenced by growing sentiments against China during the mass outbreak.

The Globalisation Backlash
There has been a surge in nationalistic politics worldwide since the early 2010s across the left-right political spectrum. Phenomena like Brexit and the call to ‘Make America Great Again’ are attempts at reminding people that their national interests have been eroded by foreign interests. The root of this nationalistic upsurge lies in growing consensus amongst the masses that the processes of globalisation have overlooked the locals and benefitted foreigners who have been depleting native resources and taking jobs away from ordinary citizens. Banning foreign apps in this environment speaks to the inward-looking policies.

One of the key responses to the data threat posed by TikTok in India has been a call for ‘data localisation’ which requires data about a nations’ citizens and residents to be collected, processed and stored inside the country before being transferred internationally. The latest draft of the Personal Data Protection (PDP) 2019 prohibits processing of sensitive personal data and critical personal data outside India.  Such policy measures indicate that the notion of global trust has eroded over the years. The argument is not that such a move is unwarranted, it is simply to point out that it is happening within a global context where several countries are putting their national interests before globalization- often juxtaposing one with the other. While COVID-19 has exacerbated this phenomenon with countries being forced to imagine their economies in the absence of interconnectivity, parochialism predates the pandemic and finds its origins in the surge of nationalism in the past decade.

Therefore we can see that the nations across the globe are currently seeing a trend that is relatively averse to foreign interference and involvement. The situation has worsened in the context of the US-China technology conflict and growing criticism of China during the COVID-19 pandemic- thus making the banning of Chinese applications in India contextually allowable. However, as the next section will explore, shunning China leads to certain unavoidable complications.

3. Predictions for The Future

The latest app ban could have significant repercussions for India and China’s trade relations. India, like several other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been thinking of reducing its trade dependence on China and finding alternatives to fill in the gaps. The government has already begun looking at alternative sources for over a thousand items that were previously sourced from China. For instance, countries like Vietnam and Brazil are being considered for electronic machinery. Moreover, India recently amended its foreign direct investment policy to require all neighboring nations, especially China, to seek approval from the government for future investments in India. However, such ‘decoupling’ (simply put, distancing in terms of trade) is extremely difficult for India given the extent of the trade dependence between India and China- which is especially visible in India’s app ecosystem. Some of the most well-known Indian startup brands have received Chinese investments including Paytm, Ola, Snapdeal, and Swiggy. The Brookings Institute has estimated that the total Chinese investment in India is around USD 26 billion. Statistics like these highlight the degree of trade connectivity between the two countries and suggest the incalculable consequences of severing these ties.

Further, the recent development is a major step in data protection for India and has potentially set a precedence in dealing with privacy norms in India. It could prompt Indian authorities to ban other applications and services too that challenge the country’s ‘sovereignty’. This could put several online services including Facebook and WhatsApp under the radar as they have also been previously red flagged for unethical data processing, For instance, Facebook was fined with over USD 5 billion by the US government in 2019 for violating privacy laws. Further, the fact that the ban on TikTok came in the background of accusations of interfering with electoral processes in the country could also have serious ramifications on content governance in the country. It could result in other social media platforms that have previously been condemned on such grounds to meet similar consequences. However, current events show that instead of inducing fear in these social media platforms, the move has provided them with an economic opportunity. Facebook launched ‘reels’ in India, a TikTok competitor, days after the rival was removed from the country’s app ecosystem.

Developments like this make it all the more clear that while data violations might have been the explanation behind the app ban, its motive was indeed to appear as a response to the Sino-India Border Clash. The ‘online realm’ has been the Indian government’s weapon of choice in this conflict to promote the country’s national interest. This could be indicative of emerging techniques in wartime responses that involve technology related sanctions.

Ongoing Indo-China hostilities might also affect India’s 5G decisions with respect to Huawei. Several experts have opined that the tech wars between US and China surrounding 5G could result in a bifurcated 5G ecosystem involving two separate, politically divided and potentially non interoperable technology spheres of influence—one led by the US and the other led by China. However, boycotting Huawei in India’s 5G rollout is a difficult matter. Countries like India that are more sensitive to cost are likely to opt for the inexpensive and equally effective Therefore it is difficult to decisively conclude if the current app ban determines India’s position in the ongoing tech battle globally.

Therefore we can see that the current ban has been fostered in a national and international political climate that is condemning foreign involvement in general and Chinese influence specifically. However, distancing oneself from China is a herculean task for India given its heavy dependence and the cost-effectiveness of Chinese products. Nonetheless, the discussions in this article have made it clear that the realm of technology is invariably tied with the politics of the time. The case of the current ban has underlined the ways in which tech-related policy interacts with political decisions and in fact shapes them.

Vartika Neeraj has a degree in Political Science and International Relations from Ashoka University, India. She has previously worked with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Her
work has previously appeared in national publications like TheWire as well as Cambridge University’s politics blog ‘In the Long Run

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