Indian companies, technology researchers and start-ups must be encouraged to fill the gap in the social media space.
India has finally reached the conclusion that its national security priorities, including data security, can no longer be taken lightly. This got reflected in its decision to ban 59 Chinese apps. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to quit Chinese social media site Weibo also sent out a strong message that India no longer trusted China.
India took this major decision to reinforce national security in the wake of the India-China standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. The Union government invoked the provisions of Section 69A of the IT Act and imposed a ban on 59 apps that have Chinese origin. It is no secret that the advances made in the Information Technology field have drastically changed the way people communicate, transcending borders and continents. But it is equally true that cutting edge communication technology cuts both ways. The United States, in the meanwhile, has welcomed and supported the Indian government’s decision to ban Chinese social media and communication apps.
New Delhi’s action comes soon after similar action by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Imposing a ban on China’s Huawei and XTE Corporation, US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “Both companies have close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and China’s military apparatus and both companies are subject to Chinese law obliging them to cooperate with the country’s intelligence services”. Not a single dollar out of the $8.3 billion fund of the FCC will be used to buy any products or services offered by Chinese companies.
Although many governments, especially in the West, have been considering taking action against Chinese origin apps, New Delhi was lenient in its approach—to the extent of officially sponsoring China financed Paytm as the official payment gateway in the wake of demonetisation. It took great persuasion by technology and security experts to impress upon the government to create parallel indigenous payment gateways. Meanwhile, Chinese technology companies like Xiaomi and Tencent, besides, Alibaba increased their footprints, service outlets and investments in the Indian market, clearly challenging the supremacy of American corporations.
While business entities in China exploited the technological void in India to corner millions of users, political China continued to unleash its PLA on our borders to nibble away our territory. A far more serious aspect was the extreme threat to national security and the defence aspects. All these apps are created in such a manner that the moment they are downloaded they automatically collect strategic information from the user including internet service provider details, network activities, IP address, geo-location data, unique device identity (UDI), browsing history, content chart and even cookies. With all this data collected from millions of users, Chinese companies virtually become owners of rich data mines. While a large chunk of the user base could be ordinary citizens, but a large number also comprises persons connected with government, the defence establishment and other strategic and security related areas.
The ban on Chinese apps, a much needed step, although late, clearly indicates that the dividing line between technology and geopolitics is wafer thin. Any slackness in the control and surveillance mechanism could jeopardise national security beyond repair.
It is also important for the government to take certain positive steps towards strengthening social media sites and their optimum positive utility without compromising with national security. The ban will lead to a void which in all likelihood will be filled by apps developed in the US or EU countries. Though they may be democratic dispensations, the data storage and ownership will be with these countries and not in Indian hands. This could result in another set of problems to our detriment.
A better option would be to encourage Indian companies, technology researchers and start-ups to fill the gap in the social media space. Almost ten years ago, a team of researchers in the US conducted research on using buffer space (unused gaps between beamed signals in the VHF and UHF spectrum bands) in broadcasts. This unused buffer spectrum (white space technology) actually used low power frequency that is able to penetrate obstacles such as mountains and thick forested areas. India with a large rural area needs to use all the spectrum available and make the most of technology to reach remote areas.
The government needs to undertake a massive programme to educate and inform the people, social media users, service providers and stakeholders that the ban is not another disruptive reform but is a step towards Atma Nirbhar (self-reliant) Bharat. Around 315 broadband providers in India provide service to 544.89 million wireless broadband customers and 18.42 wired services, reaching 40.9% of the population.
In the present crisis, the need for internet access to work and learn has increased manifold. Roughly 50% of the people in rural and semi urban areas have no quality broadband. This digital divide has to end.
It is high time India concentrated on becoming self-reliant. The protection and security of data will remain pivotal to the maintenance of India’s national security. The ongoing competition among major powers in achieving both information assurance and information dominance across the spectrum with the help of the use of information communication technology will provide an impetus to India in making investments in this regard. India’s achievements in ICT have been phenomenal. What it requires to do is to integrate all the existing capabilities and prioritise the areas specifically linked with both India’s sovereignty and the maintenance of national security. Those who argue that India’s ban of Chinese apps is arbitrary do not understand how China had intruded into India in managing data and information relating to India which obviously was detrimental to India’s national security.
Arvind Kumar teaches geopolitics and international relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic analyst.