A year after the government swooped across the Chinese app eco-system in the country for engaging in activities ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and security of India’, many apps from the country continue to grow exponentially — some from companies that were explicitly banned, such as Alibaba, Bytedance, and Xiaomi.
Most of these companies have attempted to hide their Chinese origins, listing their apps with new company names, and with little public information about the ownership of the apps.
A TOI investigation finds that at least 8 of the top 60 apps in India today are Chinese operated, and together reach over 211 million users every month. The same apps had 96 million users in July 2020 when Chinese apps were banned—implying that they have acquired 115 million new users in the last 13 months.
The government had, in an unprecedented measure, brought down as many as 267 Chinese apps in India last year using provisions under Section 69A of the IT Act.
The clampdown of 2020, at the height of border and diplomatic tensions between India and China, had seen the government take down TikTok, UC Browser, PUBG, Helo, AliExpress, Likee, Shareit, Mi Community, WeChat and CamScanner, Baidu Search, Weibo, Bigo Live, apart from some apps from Xiaomi.
The ban, the government had said, was imposed to ensure safety and security of the citizens, including data protection, and had been recommended by the Home Ministry.
“Ministry of Electronics and IT has issued the order for blocking the access of these apps… based on the comprehensive reports received from Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Center, Ministry of Home Affairs… Government is committed to protecting the interests of citizens and sovereignty and integrity of India on all fronts and it shall take all possible steps to ensure that,” the government had said.
However, the entry of similar apps in a new avatar seems to have gone unnoticed, especially as the companies have been growing in strength in the country. Most of the companies have attempted to hide their Chinese roots, listing their apps with new company names, and sometimes with little public information about the ownership of the apps.
Nearly all the new apps belong to media and entertainment space, which is where companies such as Tiktok (by Bytedance), and SnackVideo (by Kuaishou) were operating when banned in 2020. Experts believe that Chinese companies have targeted this category because it allows them to quickly reach a large audience base. Indeed, some of the apps, launched after the ban have managed to add tens of millions of users in just months.
The fastest-growing Chinese app is the fastest-growing App in India: PLAYit. The app has grown quickly by promoting piracy. Along with playing videos, users are able to download pirated copies of movies and shows via Telegram, including shows from OTT platforms like Netflix, MXPlayer, SonyLiv, and play them back in the PLAYit app.
When contacted, the public relations teams of Bytedance and UC Browser did not comment. A spokesperson for Xiaomi said, “Being a responsible corporate, we give paramount importance to ensuring that we are compliant with all Indian laws and the orders issued by the Indian government and have always abided by this principle.”
The company said that “all the Xiaomi apps owned (functionally or otherwise) that were ordered to be blocked for access in India have been duly blocked and removed from our smartphones and we have also taken all measures to inform users about these blocked apps.”
Government officials TOI spoke to said that any action on the new apps will be taken only after the security agencies raise a red flag over their functioning. Even last year, the ban was ordered by the IT Ministry after the security establishments found apps’ activities not in consonance to India’s security interest. Finally, a special multi-ministry committee dealing with IT Act’s Section 69A had given a go-ahead to the ban.
Should security agencies do a re-check? A quick review of six Chinese apps showed what kind of user data they are collecting. Three apps could read items stored on users’ device and access videos, photos and microphone. Most could track user location.
Meanwhile, on the Google Play Store, most of the Chinese companies providing these apps are either not listed directly or are listed with company names that are hard to trace to their primary owner. However, when looking at information found on their corporate websites for partnerships, public records on ownership patterns, and Linkedin for recruitment and hiring, a clearer picture emerges.
In some of the cases, the owner of current Chinese apps is also an owner of apps that were banned by India last year. And in many of these cases, as LinkedIn data shows, employees were shifted from the banned application to the new application. For example, the former head of Tiktok was moved to head Resso within Bytedance in July this year.
Clearly, prima facie, there is a case to check if the reasons that led to invoking the ban last year have come into play again.