The Indian government is targeting the Chinese social media apps that have become hugely popular with draft regulations designed to force them to moderate content.
Until now, Indian officials have primarily focused on regulating US technology giants such as Amazon and Facebook as they enter the Indian market, in an effort to help the country’s own start-ups.
But the meteoric popularity of Chinese apps has now ruffled feathers.
In 2018, Chinese apps including short video apps TikTok, Like and Helo took over the Android app store in India, with five out of the top 10 apps being Chinese-owned, compared to two in 2017.
TikTok, a social video app, has 39 per cent of its users in India, making the country its biggest foreign market. Like, which was the third-most downloaded app in India, counts 64 per cent of its users as Indian.
The Indian Ministry of electronics and IT has proposed rules for “intermediary” apps, those that rely on users to create their content. The rules require any that have more than 5m users need to set up a local office and have a senior executive in India who can be held responsible for any legal issues.
The draft law also calls for apps to deploy “automated tools . . . for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content.”
“When the potential is there for misuse, it would be naive to imagine [these apps] can’t be misused,” said S Gopalakrishnan, a senior official at the electronics ministry.
“What prompted our proposals is the problem with risky and criminal content. The things that worry us are who takes responsibility for the content? Who moderates it? Do we want those apps to be a vehicle for terrorism or pornography? No.”
Last July, Indonesia banned TikTok for containing “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy”.
“The spread of fake news, this is happening on these platforms and it is a matter of concern and I will be looking into it,” said Rakesh Maheshwari, an official at the IT Ministry in charge of cyber law and cyber security. “Also, if there is any security malware or snooping, then definitely that is an issue of concern to us and we will be taking action.”
The Indian ministry has held talks with ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, to discuss moderation and the Chinese company is expected to shortly publish its own response to the draft rules. It did not respond to a request for comment.
The proposed Indian laws are similar to newly introduced guidelines in China, where short video apps such as TikTok are expected to review every piece of content that goes online and be held responsible for any “harmful” content posted by their users.
There are also plans to force Chinese apps to store their data on Indian citizens within the country, rather than routing it back to China.
Similar rules are also being discussed for foreign payment and e-commerce providers. “In my view, unless we are very sure there is no security threat from Chinese apps, we shouldn’t allow them to operate at all,” said Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, the economic lobbying wing of far-right political organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “In fact, in days to come, the government is contemplating strict rules on Chinese social media apps too.”
As Chinese apps face increasing regulation at home, many have turned to India for growth. “India is the final frontier for them, because they haven’t been allowed widespread growth and access in other markets, but they are really getting it right here,” said Ananth Padmanabhan, tech policy expert at the Centre for Policy Research based in New Delhi.
“Chinese apps can really give incumbents a run for their money, so Indian players are trying to use the regulatory route to beat them,” he added. Local apps such as ShareChat have both increased lobbying and launched legal action to defend their turf.
Lobbyists like Mr Mahajan are also concerned that Chinese companies flush with cash will hurt the Indian start-up ecosystem. “We have seen how companies like Amazon and Walmart burn cash and kill our smaller e-commerce businesses, we need to be cautious about them,” Mr Mahajan said. “It’s been about six months since the government has started studying [Chinese social media apps], and debating what rules and regulations they can make.”
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