The Indian government has banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps from the country’s internet as a border dispute with its Communist neighbour continues to escalate.
India’s Ministry of Information Technology invoked controversial blocking powers to cut off a swathe of widely-used services including Clash of Kings, Baidu Map and Translate, and the social networks WeChat, Weibo and QQ.
Officials claimed that they were responding to complaints from citizens about “malicious apps” that “steal and surreptitiously transmit” user data outside India.
The crisis began on May 5 when Chinese troops annexed 60 sq km of the disputed Himalayan border zone of Ladakh in Kashmir, leading to the deaths of at least 23 Indian soldiers in hand to hand fighting on June 15.
The Ministry said: “The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures….
“This move will safeguard the interests of crores [tens of millions] of Indian mobile and internet users. This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”
It comes after Western users caught TikTok’s iPhone app continually accessing their clipboards without their permission, even though it had promised to stop doing so in April.
The popular video-sharing app, owned by the massive Chinese tech start-up ByteDance, has spread more widely in India than anywhere else, especially since the start of lockdown, with 611m downloads according to the analytics firm Sensor Tower.
Yet it has since become the victim of ongoing tensions between the two nuclear powers, slipping from number 5 to number 10 on Apple’s Indian app store due to a consumer boycott supported by senior politicians.
In early June, a nationalistic phone-cleaning service called Remove China Apps briefly topped the trending app charts on Android phones before being removed by Google.
Indian censorship of the internet has increased drastically since Mr Modi’s election in 2014, with 29 mobile blackouts this year so far. Jammu and Kashmir, another border region disputed with Pakistan, has been under some form of internet lockdown for almost a year.
Ladakh has been claimed by both China and India since the 1962 Sino-Indian War, in which China seized part of the area. Soldiers on both sides usually carry no guns in order to limit the diplomatic damage of any skirmish.
Mr Modi has been attacked by both opposition politicians and members of his own party for his handling of the crisis, which has reportedly seen Chinese forces intrude ever further into Indian-controlled territory.
Chinese state media reported on Sunday that its troops had been reinforced by experienced mountain climbers and martial artists just before the June 15 clash, which was the deadliest in 45 years.
Indian officials had already been considering an app ban since April, but sped up their plans after the battle.