Internet Freedom Foundation seeks clarification from govt on legality of Chinese app ban

Internet Freedom Foundation seeks clarification from govt on legality of Chinese app ban
Photo Credit: Reuters
31 Jul, 2020

New Delhi based digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has objected to the government’s ban on Chinese mobile applications, alleging that the secrecy and opacity of the move violates digital rights of citizens.

The organisation, in a series of tweets on Thursday said that it has filed a right to information (RTI) request with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), seeking clarity on the legality of the ban. It sought copies of the legal order citing grounds for the ban, complaints received against these apps and asked if the ministry carried out objective assessments to determine the privacy impact of the apps.

The DoT, in response, listed laws that back its action, as per screenshots posted on Twitter by the organisation. However, it declined to mention the reasons for the ban, as the information sought by the applicant was “restricted” and “prohibited”.

“Such secrecy and opacity in the blocking rules is a systemic issue and affects the digital rights of every citizen. We need the government to cease such opaque blocking and introduce regulatory reforms to increase the transparency and accountability of the government authorities involved,” IFF said in a tweet on Thursday.

The organisation has previously questioned the government on the censorship of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo, file sharing service WeTransfer, and websites of environmental groups LetIndiaBreathe (LIB) and FridaysForFuture (FFF).

The government banned the first set of Chinese apps late last month, citing concerns around the sovereignty and integrity of India. It implemented a similar ban on Monday -- this time of 47 Chinese origin apps

Featured in the first list was ByteDance-owned short video platform TikTok, which was temporarily banned in 2019 by Madras High Court for promoting indecent content. The platform counts India as its largest market -- it had over 120 million monthly active users in the country at the end of 2019. On Thursday, it reportedly told the government that it was ready to set up data centres in India to store user information locally.

Other ByteDance apps facing the brunt of the order are local language social platform Helo and Vigo Video, joined by Bigo-owned video apps Bigo and Likee. Ecommerce platforms ROMWE, Club Factory and Shein, Tencent-owned WeChat, device maker Xiaomi-owned Mi Video Call and Alibaba Group-owned UC Browser and UC News also featured on the list.

“The Ministry of Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said at the time of the ban. 

“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” it added.

The Centre has also directed ecommerce companies to indicate the country of origin of products on their platforms.

Earlier this year, it tweaked the Foreign Direct Investment rules for investments from Chinese enterprises and individuals under the direct investment route. The move, it said, was to prevent the hostile takeover of Indian companies in view of the Covid-19 related economic slowdown.