Should you uninstall TikTok, what similar apps to use? The Chinese app ban, explained

India on Monday banned 59 apps with Chinese links, including the hugely popular TikTok and UC Browser, saying they were prejudicial to sovereignty, integrity and security of the country. The ban, which comes in the backdrop of the current stand-off along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh with Chinese troops, is also applicable for WeChat and Bigo Live.

The Information and Technology Ministry in a statement said it 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”.

“There have been raging concerns on aspects relating to data security and safeguarding the privacy of 130 crore Indians. It has been noted recently that such concerns also pose a threat to sovereignty and security of our country,” the statement said, adding that the ministry had received many complaints from various sources.

“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,” the statement said.

Which are the apps banned?

TikTok (which has over 200 million users in India), Likee and Vigo Video are popular short video creation platforms, while Club Factory and Shein are e-commerce platforms that were looking at expanding their presence to compete with larger rivals like Myntra.

WeChat is a Chinese multi-purpose messaging and social media app that rivals WhatsApp.

CamScanner, with the same functionalities as Adobe scanner, is a popular app that allows users to scan images and share them.

SHAREit app allows users to share files between devices, while Helo is a social media platform owned by ByteDance, the parent firm of TikTok.

Alibaba’s UC Browser is a mobile Internet browser that has been available in India since 2009. It claimed to have registered 1.1 billion user downloads worldwide (excluding China) in September 2019, with half of its global installs from India. It also claimed to have 130 million monthly active users in the country at that time.

The government has also banned a clutch of apps of Chinese handset maker Xiaomi, including Mi Community and Mi Video Call. Xiaomi is India’s largest handset brand.

What are the data security concerns mentioned above?

Intelligence reports had earlier rang the alarm bell over 53 apps “extracting data to entities outside the country”.

Take the case of TikTok. It has been facing scrutiny in the European Union over data concerns. Bloomberg reported that EU authorities were, in May, investigating the app after the data-protection commission in the Netherlands opened a probe into the company’s policies to protect children’s data, saying the app is “clearly loved” by Dutch kids. The Beijing-based company had rejected claims it is being controlled by the Chinese government, or that data privacy was an issue.

A recent report by Telegraph had claimed that several apps, including TikTok, were caught accessing data on the clipboard of iOS14. “A security patch from Apple has suddenly exposed just how many smartphone apps are reading users’ clipboards every time they are on screen,” according to the publication. TikTok had responded to the report saying an updated version was already in place. “For TikTok, this was triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behaviour. We have already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion,” TikTok stated.

How did the government ban the applications?

The Ministry of Information Technology blocked these apps by invoking section 69A of the Information Technology Act, and the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009.

The clause allows the government to issue directions to block for public access of any information through any computer resource: “Where the Central Government or any of its officer specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may subject to the provisions of sub-section (2) for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the Government or intermediary to block for access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource.”

What happens next? Should you uninstall TikTok and other Chinese apps mentioned?

What happens next remains to be seen. However, a likely scenario:

Under section 69A, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be asked to block all of these apps. Google and Apple will be served notices to remove them from their online app stores. This invalidates the use of apps like TikTok which need an internet connection to operate; their use will be blocked.

For apps and functionalities that can work offline, the situation is a little more tricky. It is highly likely that further downloads will be blocked, and existing users could be served an advisory to refrain from using the applications further.

What are some similar apps that can be used?

There are numerous home-grown alternatives that can provide an option to the Indian audience. Take the case of ‘Chingari’, a TikTok alternative that has crossed more than 2.5 million downloads. The short video-sharing app reached the milestone from 5,50,000 downloads in just ten days, the free social platform said in a statement last week. Biswatma Nayak, co-founder of the Chingari App, said, “In the last few days, we have witnessed a 400 per cent growth in the subscribers of the app.”

Chingari said it allows a user to download and upload videos, chat with friends, interact with new people, share content and browse through feed. “Chingari pays a content creator on the basis of how viral the video becomes. For every video that one uploads on the Chingari app, you get points [per view] which can be redeemed for money,” the statement added. The app is available in multiple languages including English, Hindi, Bangla, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu.

ShareChat is an Indian vernacular social media platform, that has garnered huge popularity. ShareChat Director of Public Policy Berges Malu welcomed the move to ban Chinese apps. “This is a welcome move from the government against platforms that have had serious privacy, cyber security and national security risks. We expect the government to continue their support for the Indian startup ecosystem,” he said.

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