In an unprecedented move this week, India banned 59 Chinese smartphone apps, including popular applications such as TikTok and CamScanner. The government justified the decision on the basis of “data security” and “privacy” concerns which, the Ministry of Information Technology said, also pose a threat to India’s “sovereignty and security.”
Privacy concerns have been buzzing around India’s digital economy for years, but the timing of the move suggests that its impetus lies elsewhere. The Modi government hopes that this decision will serve as retaliation against Beijing for the long-running border tensions between the two countries.
During the course of the ongoing standoff, many Indians have repeatedly called for economic boycott measures against China. The problem is that India’s share in Chinese trade is far too small to make much of a dent (by some estimates, Vietnam is statistically more influential on this count).
But the internet is a different battlefield. Chinese apps have proven increasingly popular in India’s massive market in recent years: According to one report, they accounted for over 60 percent of the Indian market in 2019, after having been only a fraction of that in 2015. Last year, TikTok clocked over 300 million downloads in India – nearly 80 million more than the second-placed WhatsApp. And six out of the top ten most popular apps in India were Chinese.
With a young and increasingly connected population, the Indian internet market is only going to boom in the years to come. And China was well poised to grow its footprint further – until New Delhi erected its firewall. India now hopes that the loss in revenue from the Indian internet market will have some sting.
Yet, despite this rationale, this decision could be potentially counterproductive. As many have pointed out on social media, the ban can be easily side-stepped through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). That means that to enforce the ban, the government must now monitor the online behavior of its people much more closely, including by possibly blocking VPNs. If all this comes to pass, India will be firmly on the high-road to internet surveillance – the opposite of protecting user privacy.
India’s recent track-record on issues of internet freedom and data privacy is not particularly reassuring either. Earlier this year, it broke the record for the longest internet shutdown in a democracy. Then, concerns erupted over the National Social Registry database, which analysts said would compromise the personal data of people. Shortly afterwards, India’s COVID-19 contract-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, was said to be more intrusive and less transparent than similar apps in countries like Singapore. The firewall against China could now push New Delhi to further extend the surveillance state.
The ban could also create other collateral problems. In recent years, tens of thousands of Indian students have flocked to Chinese universities. While the overwhelming majority of them go to make use of the low-cost medical education system, many more have traveled to China more recently to study Chinese policy, politics and society. And most Indian students in China depend on Chinese apps such as WeChat to correspond with their colleagues and universities – thereby making life much harder for them now.
The new restrictions will also have long-term strategic costs. If the ban continues for long, these barriers will restrict student exchanges with China – which will also mean fewer Indian students studying in China about China and fewer interactions between Indian and Chinese scholars. For the future of Indian foreign policy, this will be the exact opposite of what New Delhi needs; now more than ever, India desperately needs China scholars who have experienced that country extensively.
If New Delhi’s major concern truly is privacy, it would be much better off looking to introduce stronger privacy protection, including on Chinese apps. India’s privacy laws have long been overdue for reform – and this could have been a great opportunity to fulfill that cause. But if New Delhi’s motivation is strategic, this decision will not be very helpful. Despite the clout of India’s growing internet market, it’s unlikely that China will relent on its aggressive border policy due to the ban. China has been rather headstrong under far stronger economic pressure from countries like Japan and the US, for instance.
The ban will not plug India’s power disparity with China – the main objective that New Delhi should pursue in order to deter future aggression. Instead, it could simply weaken India by diluting its free society.