Banned: PUBG, 117 China-linked apps

India on Wednesday banned 118 China-linked mobile apps, including widely popular game PUBG, two months after similar curbs on 59 apps, mostly Chinese, and a month after banning 47 more linked to that country, citing concerns over them being “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity… defence of India, security of state and public order” amid a months-long standoff with its northern neighbour at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In late June, India banned dozens of mobile apps, including Bytedance’s TikTok, Alibaba’s UC Browser and Tencent’s WeChat over what it said were national security concerns. It banned some more in late July.

India has accused Chinese troops of resorting to “provocative action” even as military commanders were holding talks on Monday to ease fresh tensions near Pangong Lake. The latest development follows the two sides trading charges of trespassing the LAC on the southern bank of Pangong Lake since the weekend, complicating the de-escalation process that has stalled at key friction points. 

On Wednesday, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) said the apps – including the mobile version of PUBG and other services provided by China internet giant Tencent – appeared to steal and surreptitiously transmit users’ data in an “unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”.

“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,” it added.

Tencent did not comment, while the Chinese embassy in New Delhi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The government said it was invoking its power under section 69A of the Information Technology Act read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009.

A MEITY official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the ban was implemented under the “emergency provisions of the IT Act”. “We got report of the violations yesterday (Tuesday) and immediately blocked the applications,” the official added.

The official also said that the same process that was followed for the previous app bans will be followed again. “They will be given a chance to put forth a representation on their behalf.”

The banned versions of PUBG included PUBG Mobile Lite, a smaller version of the app, as well as PUBG Mobile Nordic Map: Livik, a recent game played on a Nordic terrain.

The full version of the game PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds, popularly called PUBG, saw its user numbers rise sharply in India amid a lockdown brought on by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. With over 175 million downloads, India accounts for about a quarter of PUBG Mobile’s lifetime installs though revenues from the country are still minuscule, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. In the game, 100 players battle with assault weapons until there is only one left standing.

Other apps that have been banned include games, online payment services, dating sites and software to edit images. The list also includes China’s search engine leader Baidu Inc, and online payments giant Ant Group Co’s platform Alipay.

PUBG was developed by a South Korean company for desktop PCs, but the mobile version that has become popular around the world was developed by Tencent. The list of the banned apps did not mention the PC version of the game.

India has launched efforts to impose economic costs on China in the wake of continued Chinese aggression at the LAC in India’s signalling to China that this aggression cannot coexist with preferential economic ties, officials previously told HT.

Apart from the banning of mobile apps, decisions have been made by various government departments to cancel contracts with Chinese firms. There have also been reports of imports from China getting stuck at ports, and in April, India tightened foreign direct investment inflows from neighbouring countries — with an eye on China — by requiring them to go through a more rigorous government approval process.

Border tensions between India and China flared up in the aftermath of a clash in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on June 15 — the first deadly conflict between soldiers of the two sides along the LAC in 45 years. The clash resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer, and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers.

Wednesday’s was the third round of app bans after India decided to take down TikTok and 58 other platforms on June 29. The second round of curbs came on July 23, when the government decided to take down mirror applications that were functioning despite the ban. The applications were banned for being a “threat to the sovereignty of the country and national security”. MEITY minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had called the bans on the applications a “digital strike against China”.

On Wednesday, the government said the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre of the Union home ministry has also sent an exhaustive recommendation for blocking these “malicious apps”. “Likewise, there have been similar bipartisan concerns, flagged by various public representatives, both outside and inside the Parliament of India. There has been a strong chorus in the public space to take strict action against apps that harm India’s sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens,” it added.

“On the basis of these and upon receiving of recent credible inputs that information posted, permissions sought, functionality embedded as well as data harvesting practices of above stated apps raise serious concerns that these apps collect and share data in surreptitious manner and compromise personal data and information of users that can have a severe threat to security of the state,” the statement said.

“This move will safeguard the interests of crores of Indian mobile and internet users. This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety, security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”

Ramanjit Singh Chima, lawyer and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now, an international digital rights group, said: “The wording of the current release uses verbatim text from the July order, even though there are a range of different apps and services named in this notification. It appears that the government has not clearly applied its mind when preparing this order, which makes it more likely that this web content blocking action is not legal under Indian law and the Constitution. The evidence referred to in the press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs and CERT-IN should also be made available. Indians deserve steps that directly serve clear cybersecurity interests and respect the rule of law and fundamental rights; it is this commitment that makes Indian democracy strong and different from those countries that disregard internationally protected rights.”

Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation said: “It seems that banning applications under various sections has now become the norm. Under the IT Act, emergency provisions have become an acceptable measure. It undermines the idea of graded penalties. It is increasingly becoming the option to address breaches of data privacy by the government. It has also become a tendency to issue press releases and not banning orders.”

Cyber security experts have said that software providers based in China inherently pose a surveillance risk. “Every Chinese tech company has to comply with the Chinese cybersecurity law which allows the Chinese government to have access to the data these companies collect – this is part of the nationwide mass surveillance systems that are in place in China,” Victor Gevers, head of research at the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure (DIVD), who discovered such databases in 2019, told HT on July 1.

(With inputs from Bloomberg and AFP)

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