India’s double standard for apps: Ban all apps that take data out of nation, irrespective of country of origin

There should be strong data privacy laws that protect our citizens’ data not only from its misuse by big capital, but also government’s security agencies

Representative photo
Representative photo
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Prabir Purakayastha/IPA

India’s ban on Chinese apps for allegedly protecting India’s data sovereignty, becomes suspicious when we see no such problem with the US companies doing exactly that: taking Indian citizens data out of the country.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for electronics and information technology and communications, in a self congratulatory vein, has approvingly noted how President Trump is following India by banning Chinese apps. Trump’s attempt is to force Byte Dance to sell its assets – TikTok app – in the US to a US company. He has even talked of how any company that buys Byte Dance assets should pay a fat sum to the US government for this extortion. Do we seriously want to be in Trump’s company on this one?

Clearly, by banning Chinese apps and preventing Chinese companies from bidding in its telecom and other infrastructure projects, India is joining the US and its allies in its so-called clean network initiative. This initiative aims to remove all Chinese equipment and software from the US and countries allied to the US. The protection of citizens’ digital rights and the border clashes with China, is only a cover under which India is now seeking to become a junior partner in the hegemonic ambitions of the US and its tech war with China.

If India is so keen to protect its citizens, why has it diluted the Justice Srikrishna Committee’s recommendations with its strong provisions for data localisation in its Draft Data Protection Bill? The RBI had notified in April 2018 that within a period of six months, the entire data relating to payment systems operated by any financial system provider – credit cards, banks or other financial players – need to be stored only in India. Both these provisions – data localisation and the RBI Guidelines – were seen by the US Trade Representative’s office (USTR March, 2019) as a restriction on US companies doing business in India. Under pressure of the US, the 2019 Draft Data Protection Bill has considerably diluted both these provisions.

In today’s world, data is an economic resource, and the basis of the new digital monopolies. The use of monopoly powers to fleece smaller companies and their customers have led to scrutiny of their practices at home and in other countries. The Congressional hearings in the US on monopoly practices by the Big Four – Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon – highlight the danger of these new set of monopolists. These four companies, in only two decades, are worth 4 trillion dollars in market capitalisation, far outstripping all others.

In India, ad revenues that are the main economic resource for media, is shifting rapidly to Google and Facebook. Amazon is becoming a major player in the retail market in violation of India’s stated policies and regulations banning foreign multi-brand retail. Increasingly, big US companies are emerging as the dominant players using their monopoly power and India’s lax regulatory laws.

The recent tie-up of Google and Facebook with Reliance Jio, which has emerged as the leading telecom player, increases their market power even more. This is the threat to the Indian people and the country that the Modi government is not willing to talk about.

The other threat is to the privacy of India’s citizens. If data leaves the country it can be a security threat. This is what the ministry of electronics & IT press release banning Chinese apps states. Indian data is taken out by the US companies as a matter of course and held in US servers located outside India. This will continue under Modi government’s Data Protection Bill. The US laws allow its intelligence agencies to access such data without any legal restrictions. That is why the European Union’s highest court has ruled European citizens data cannot be taken out of Europe and transferred to US servers.

Is it the Modi government’s argument that our data is safe with the US digital monopolies as they only exploit Indian people, and are therefore not a security threat? Is this the quid pro quo for US capital to flow into the hands of Indian big capital?

If India wants to protect its digital space, this should be done transparently, using laws that exist, not by ad hoc measures. We have always advocated that Indian digital space should be protected from foreign capital and digital platforms should be regulated as public utilities. There should be strong data privacy laws that protect our citizens’ data not only from its misuse by big capital, but also government’s security agencies. That is why we need a law-based system that protects the citizens from the market power of digital monopolies and the State’s security agencies.

Ban Chinese apps if that is what our digital policy requires, but then ban all apps that take data out of the country irrespective of which country’s app it is. There should be no double standards.

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