The relationship between India and China has traditionally been quite a complex one, and we’ve recently seen the tension jump into the technological field. More specifically, we’ve seen it enter the Android ecosystem and app distribution, as the Indian government decided to ban some Chinese apps in its territory. There are several reasons behind such decisions (according to the Indian government), which have caused repercussions for app creators, distributors and users alike. After watching the list of banned apps increase, we can only assume that this story is not over yet. As such, let’s deep dive into the details of this story.
Everything started back in June 2020, when the relationship between the two governments (which has always been quite bitter due to the Ladakh Border) affected some new territory. Emulating the US administration’s ban on Huawei, India decided to take some measures against one of China’s most important economic areas: technology. It started with Indian Railways canceling a massive contract with a Chinese company on June 17th. However at the end of the month, on June 29th, the Android app distribution industry got an even bigger shock: the Indian Government banned 59 Chinese apps, including hits like UC Browser, WeChat, and the star of the moment, TikTok. The number of banned apps grew rapidly, and by the end of the summer there were more than 120 on the list.
There are two reasons behind this decision, according to the Indian administration. Firstly, they believe that these apps are a threat to the country’s national security, which basically implies that they are an ill-intentioned tool for some entity (the Chinese government maybe?). Secondly, they appeal to users’ desire for security. They have stated that they believe users’ privacy rights are not being respected since their personal data is being transferred to servers outside of Indian territory. That’s something we’ve heard before, as the US said much the same when they banned TikTok. Due to the huge impact of this decision on app developers, distributors and users, it was a shock for analysts around the world. As expected, it’s a completely legal decision and, quoting the Indian government, they can ban apps that are “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, the security of the state and public order.” This is not the first time we’ve heard this and, judging by the rising tension in international commerce, we can only expect to see similar measures in the years to come. Almost every national government in the world has powers to “block access to any specific set of information by the public” when national security or users’ safety is involved.
The analysts mentioned above have written numerous articles about other potential reasons behind this ban and, to be honest, their point of view is a fair one. How come Chinese apps are the only ones being accused of privacy violation and national security, when the not-so-honest relationship between the American big techs and its national government has already been proven? Apparently, among the other possible motivations, there are also (as expected) some economy reasons. India might see the Chinese digital Silk Road as a threat to their economic interest. In a technological world where hardware is dominated by China and software is dominated by the US, India may feel they need to send a message to make their presence clear. With such a massive population, the Indian government is fully aware of how important it is for global digital companies to access their market, and this move is just making the message clear: “You need this big piece of the cake while we don’t really depend on your products.”
The fact that such a big chunk of the world’s population can live without these apps is something that the media lost no time in highlighting. Journals like The Indian Express made lists of alternative apps as soon as the ban hit the news. This sends a clear message to app distributors around the world: while a problem has been created for these Chinese developers, an opportunity has appeared for many other developers to take that space. And, taking into consideration the importance, size, and growth forecasts of the Indian apps market, the space we are talking about is quite a big one.
While security, privacy, and state’s sovereignty are very important, specialists around the world agree that these types of bans have serious consequences for app creators, distributors, and (especially) users’ freedom of choice. The latter of which is already in danger due to the almost monopolistic app distribution system that currently dominates the global scene, so we can only hope that administrations around the world take this into consideration before resorting to these types of measures. In the meantime, it seems only fair to try to take a step into the Indian app distribution market while the opportunity is there.