The Information and Technology Ministry of the Government of India recently banned 47 apps which were clones of the 59 apps which were earlier banned in June. The servers linked with the apps are reported to be stationed in China and the apps are said to predominantly be of Chinese origin.
The Government banned the apps under Article 69A of the Information Technology Act read with the Blocking Rules, 2009. This was based on the information that the apps were engaged in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity,” defence, security, and public order.
The current is due to the “operational ethics” of the apps, which refers to the data collected by the app going to the Chinese government. A recent report suggested that certain Chinese law makes it a mandate for private companies operating in China to share data with the government upon request even if the service provided by the company is outside of the Chinese territory.
Analysts are of the opinion that the banning of the magazine is a “political move” since it coincides with the incident of the Galwan Valley. India has a trade deficit of almost $50 Billion with China as various economic sectors in India depend on Chinese goods. This makes it difficult for the Indian State to impose economic sanctions without severely affecting its own economy. I feel the move to ban the Chinese apps is quite praiseworthy since it gives a message to China while avoiding further escalation since both are nuclear states.
Although the move probably barely scratches the Chinese economy, it comes with its own complexities relating to International Trade. Both China and India are members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and therefore it brings the organization in a position to intervene in matters related to domestic laws which regulate the Internet.
Previously the WTO declared that foreign internet-based services can gain access to a state’s market, thus under a shared agreement to liberalize trade between countries bans on internet services should be justified as “state-interests” which are allowed under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
Thus, India has to justify that its actions will not make local markets in favour of certain local services or services from another country. The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Panel also previously ruled (considering General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – GATT) that “political or economic differences between Members are not sufficient, of themselves, to constitute an emergency of international relations for purposes of subparagraph (iii) of Art XXI of GATT.”
These previous rulings should be taken into consideration to contemplate how a future WTO panel will assess the issue. While China calls the Indian movie discriminatory, the world is aware of the infamous, Great Fire Wall which censors sites like Facebook and Youtube within mainland China. India could possibly argue that India’s move is a retaliatory step.
It is also worth noting that member states of the WTO have legislated on the partial ban – when the US warned its Army to stop using TikTok and also Australia banned its army from using WeChat. Since government officials and employees handle sensitive documents, such moves are arguably legitimate.
A complete ban on an app must meet sufficient conditions for taking away the rights under Article 14 and 19(1)(a), of the Indian Constitution, that deal with equality before the law (available to non-citizens also) and Freedom of Speech and Expression respectively. The sufficient condition is that such rights cannot be denied to the citizens arbitrarily, and the benefits of such a move (banning of apps) must surpass the benefits of such a liberty (fundamental rights).