India’s move to ban 59 ‘Chinese’ apps infringes upon freedom of speech and, more so, expression. The ban of the apps which the government says are “engaged in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order.”
There are three issues with the government gag against Chinese apps. First, it turns a blind eye to the fact that in the world of the internet the thumb rule is that no ban is ‘the ban’ as India’s battle against pornography can testify. People always find workarounds. Even China’s experience vouches for this fact. In that country, where Google and Facebook are denied access, people use the services via virtual private networks and similar pathways. Similarly, users of, say, TikTok will be forced to look for ways to circumvent the ban, which are not tough to come by.
Second, in a digitally integrated world where globalisation of ideas and information has helped economies find novel ways to power growth and inclusion while enabling people to express their talent and thought in myriad ways, denying access to services such as TikTok, which enjoys over 100 million monthly active users in India, is an act of digital de-globalisation. TikTok is praised as a social medium that actually gave small-town India a much-needed platform to portray its talents.
Third, it is a tad erroneous to think that the threat to sovereignty will be checked by banning a clutch of Chinese apps; over 70 per cent of the 160 million smartphones sold in India in 2019 were Chinese brands. From smart TVs to surveillance products to healthcare gadgets, Chinese devices with the capability to track and extract user data are dominating the Indian market.
The government must be advised to stay away from resorting to knee-jerk symbolism that would end up hurting not only economic growth but also the people’s ability to express emotions and opinion online.