New Delhi: An inter-ministerial government panel will soon start hearing submissions and clarifications made by the Chinese companies whose apps were banned by an IT ministry order earlier this week.
This process – which will be an inquiry into how these companies handle Indian user data and overall data security – will be conducted by officials from the home affairs ministry, law ministry and IT ministry according to government sources.
Parallelly, the government is also ready in the unlikely event that a few Chinese firms choose to launch a legal challenge to the ban order.
Former attorney general and well-known senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi on Wednesday morning noted that he would not be representing TikTok, without explicitly stating whether the popular video-sharing app had asked him to be their legal counsel in this matter. In the past, senior advocate and Congress Party leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi has argued TikTok’s case before the Supreme Court, when it was temporarily banned by the Madras high court in 2018.
“There may be a few legal issues, particularly clubbing all companies in one swoop and not providing individual reasoning for a ban on each app. In addition to this, if a legal challenge actually arises, it has to be seen whether courts will ask for proof on why a specific app was a threat to India’s security or sovereignty,” one government official, who declined to be identified, told The Wire.
It is in this context that the government’s panel inquiry is expected to be crucial.
According to two media reports, all of the companies behind the banned apps will be asked to lay out their data-sharing practices with the Chinese government and that country’s intelligence agencies.
“The firms will mainly be asked to clarify their data-sharing norms under a Chinese law that requires companies of Chinese origin to share data with that country’s intelligence agencies, irrespective of where they operate. Additionally, the government is expected to ask companies without a presence in India to appoint a local grievance officer,” an Indian Express report noted.
A separate Economic Times report said that executives from Bigo Live, Likee and TikTok had already begun this process.
On Tuesday, TikTok India raised eyebrows when it described the government’s decision to ban nearly 60 apps as an “interim order”, which implied that the restrictions are not permanent and that a final decision will be taken after the government takes into account any submissions or clarifications that are put forth during its inquiry process.
Two IT ministry officials confirmed to The Wire that a “final call” will be taken only at a joint-secretary level and in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office.
People familiar with the matter, however, said that it’s unclear how fruitful the government’s inquiry process will end up being.
“Do you expect the government to now conduct a probe and turn around and say that some of these apps are now okay? And that the initial ban order was rushed and did not take into account the company’s perspective?,” a senior policy expert who has consulted with the IT ministry on China-related issues in the past, told The Wire.
On similar lines, it is unlikely that the bigger companies such as TikTok or UC Browser will immediately launch a legal challenge – most Chinese companies that have an India management team and offices within the country are likely to prefer engaging in a dialogue process with the government before heading to the courts.
China response and India’s complaints
On Tuesday evening, a Chinese embassy spokesperson said that India’s ban “selectively and discriminatorily aims at certain Chinese apps on ambiguous and far-fetched grounds, runs against fair and transparent procedure requirements” and likely violates a few World Trade Organisation rules.
The spokesperson also claimed that the action “goes against the general trend of international trade and E-commerce, and is not conducive to consumer interests and the market competition in India”.
However, Indian government officials appear ready to counter the allegation of a ban on “ambiguous and far-fetched grounds”.
An exhaustive list and recommendation from the MHA’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre resulted in the ban. Then there are also complaints to the IT ministry and several reports about the misuse of some mobile apps for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers outside India.
“The decision to ban the apps was based on 300 documented requests from eminent people and organisations, including the Congress party, and has been imposed with respect to public order and national security at a time when tensions with China are at an all-time high,” an Economic Times report said, quoting a government official.