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China data-sharing law a key issue, banned apps get 48 hours to clarify

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The Centre’s decision to ban 59 mobile applications with Chinese links, including the popular social media platform TikTok, is “interim in nature” and the firms behind these apps have been given 48 hours to provide clarifications on key issues, officials and executives told The Indian Express.

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.

On Tuesday, reacting to the government’s ban, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Ji Rong said his country is “seriously concerned with and firmly opposed to such action”.

TikTok’s India chief, Nikhil Gandhi, said the government has “issued an interim order for the blocking of 59 apps, including TikTok, and we are in the process of complying with it”.

“We have been invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications. TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and has not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese government. Further, if we are requested to in the future, we would not do so,” said Gandhi.

Club Factory, which is among the banned apps, said in a statement: “We comply with all data security norms and have not compromised with the security or privacy of any users… We have always been willing and continue to remain committed to working with the government to resolve any concerns.”

The government has already asked Google and Apple to remove the apps from their stores for users in India, and will issue similar instructions to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Jio, Airtel, and Vodafone, sources said.

In a statement issued Monday, the government said it has invoked powers under Section 69A of the IT Act, read with relevant provisions of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009, to ban these apps.

In response, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson alleged that the move “selectively and discriminatorily aims at certain Chinese apps on ambiguous and far-fetched grounds, runs against fair and transparent procedure requirements” and could be “violating the WTO 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”. Rong said China expected India to acknowledge “the mutually beneficial nature” of bilateral “economic and trade cooperation”.

Meanwhile, a senior official at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology confirmed that the government’s statement Monday “served as an interim order”. The official said that a joint-secretary level panel, with officials from the ministries of IT, Telecom, Law and Home Affairs, have been tasked with hearing clarifications from company representatives. Given the Covid situation, the official said, the meetings will likely happen via video-conferencing.

Based on the hearing, the committee will send its recommendations to another panel comprising the secretaries of IT, Law, Telecom and Home Affairs, with the Prime Minister’s Office being kept in the loop.

The joint-secretary panel may also issue a show-cause notice to these apps and ask them to place on record the number of times Chinese agencies have asked for data and whether they complied with such requests. Details regarding the nature of data sought by Chinese authorities and the frequency is also likely to be sought, sources said.

“The final decision on whether to ban the apps permanently or ask for some changes in compliance norms is left to the secretary-level panel. Until this panel takes its final decision, the interim order will remain in force,” the official said.

Further, the government could ask these companies to appoint a nodal or grievance officer, who can be questioned in case of complaints about phishing or data breach.

The IT Ministry has previously raised red flags about the Chinese law on data-sharing. To bypass this, several companies have established headquarters outside China with a complex web of ownership for their Indian entities.

In its statement Monday, the IT ministry had said that the decision to ban these apps was taken given the “emergent nature of threats” from these apps and based on information that they were engaged in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity”, defence, security and public order.

According to another senior official, the Centre had studied the flow of data from these apps to China which, in congruence with “recent credible inputs that such apps posed a threat to sovereignty and integrity of India”, led to the ban.

Indian express

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