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India Bans Chinese Apps, The App Store Firewall, Reddit and The Donald

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

UPDATE: I have added important clarification about India's capabilities with regards to banning Chinese services at the ISP level.

Good morning,

I know that yesterday’s Weekly Article, Apple and Facebook, was unusually long, and featured a lot of old Stratechery pieces. The reason was threefold: first, there really were a lot of different threads I wanted to pull together around this idea of there being both more similarities, and more of symbiotic relationship, between Apple and Facebook than you might expect. Second, a fair number of those posts were Daily Updates, and keep in mind, many Weekly Article readers are not subscribers and/or are new to the site; balancing the reading experience for long-time readers and new folks is always a challenge.

Third, if I am honest, I’m tired, and really looking forward to taking the next two days off for a little break — I’ll be a better editor next week! As always, the Daily Update posting schedule is here. See you on Monday.

On to the update:

India Bans Chinese Apps

From the Wall Street Journal:

India banned dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including widely used TikTok and WeChat, after a border clash between troops from the two countries left 20 Indian soldiers dead this month. New Delhi cited cybersecurity concerns in blocking the Chinese apps from one of the largest and fastest-growing markets in the world. A senior Indian government official said the ban was imposed because the apps might have been used to harm India’s defenses, as well as to send a message to China. Rising tensions since the clash between the Indian and Chinese armies along their disputed border in the Himalayan mountains have been accompanied in India with calls for the government to retaliate against China…

Research firm Sensor Tower estimates that the 59 banned apps have accumulated 4.9 billion downloads from Apple Inc.’s India App Store and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Play since January 2014, including 750 million so far this year. Of the top 25 most downloaded apps on India’s App Store and Google Play since April, eight were from Chinese publishers…

TikTok is bigger in India than anywhere else outside of China, owing to the South Asian nation’s massive population and legions of young and largely unemployed fans. The app was downloaded close to 650 million times since January 2018 on the App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower. Young people are often found in parks and parking lots shooting 15-second videos that mimic the song-and-dance-infused movies of Bollywood, the country’s film industry.

This is a very big deal for a whole host of reasons. Start with the big picture: while there have been occasional country-level blocking of services over the last few years — Iran blocking Twitter and Facebook comes to mind — the sheer scale of India, combined with the popularity of these services, feels even more momentous. Or perhaps it is because country-level blocks felt out of step with the Internet a decade ago, but inevitable today.

Consider TikTok in particular: this site called for TikTok’s acquisition of to be reviewed by CFIUS last fall, and I continue to be extremely concerned not only about TikTok’s extremely aggressive collection of data being sent back to China, but also at the possibility that TikTok is leveraging the black-box nature of its algorithm to act in China’s interest.

This perspective, to be clear, is absolutely rooted in my being an American, but that is the point: for all of the sense that the Internet is something beyond national borders, what has become apparent over the last few years is that nations still matter, and even if those are disrupted by the Internet, said disruption will happen over decades (and likely be in the direction of smaller entities, not larger ones).

In this case, though, the ban is literally about borders, specifically the disputed one between China and India in the Himalayas. This is a crisis that has been going on for a couple of months (in the context of a dispute that has gone on for decades), which appears to have been triggered by Chinese troop movements; what is up in the air is if this ban would potentially be rolled back should some sort of diplomatic resolution (to the current crisis, not the border itself) be reached.

On one hand, this seems like a strange connection to be drawn — troop movements and infrastructure build-out in the Himalayas to teenagers dancing on TikTok — but to be fair, my bromide against TikTok was driven by mere basketball. Indeed, there is a parallel in terms of responding to Chinese aggression: my objection was not about what China did within its borders, but its attempt to extend its reach into the United States onto a social network it itself banned. I wrote:

The problem from a Western perspective is that the links Clinton was so sure would push in only one direction — towards political freedom — turned out to be two-way streets: China is not simply resisting Western ideals of freedom, but seeking to impose their own…Morey, a private U.S. citizen posting an image on a social network already banned in China, had to be fired, or the Rockets and the NBA would quite literally pay the price. Abide by China’s standards, or else.

This gets to a second, more important point: whatever the motivation for India’s actions, China is in no position to complain about other countries shutting out their Internet services. I wrote in China, Leverage, and Value:

This is where I take the biggest issue with Culpan labeling this past week’s actions as the start of a tech cold war: China took the first shots, and they took them a long time ago. For over a decade U.S. services companies have been unilaterally shut out of the China market, even as Chinese alternatives had full reign, running on servers built with U.S. components (and likely using U.S. intellectual property).

The country that led the way in prioritizing borders over the globalized nature of the Internet was China; that said approach is now hurting its own companies is not so much karma as it is inevitable.

The App Store Firewall

There is a third angle to this news, though, that ties back to the Great Firewall of China. The construction of the Great Firewall began in 1998, when nearly all Internet access was via desktops over a wire; even laptops were rare, much less Internet-capable mobile phones. That meant that the Great Firewall has always been focused on containing the Internet as a whole; when it comes to foreign websites, filtering is predicated on the government’s control of China’s connections to the rest of the world.

What is notable about India’s ban, on the other hand, is that it does not depend on installing massive infrastructure to limit access based on DNS or deep packet inspection: rather, the country can simply ban apps, and depend on Apple and Google to enforce it (TikTok, by the way, unilaterally pulled their app from Indian App Stores after the announcement; as of this writing Apple and Google have yet to enforce the government’s orders for the other apps on the list, and have not removed TikTok from users’ phones).

This certainly gives a different perspective on Apple’s total and Google’s near-total control of what apps can be installed on iPhones and Google Play-based Android phones respectively. Whereas China needed to control country-wide Internet access to achieve its censorship goals, Apple and Google have helpfully provided the Indian government with a one-stop shop. This also, for better or worse, gives a roadmap for how the U.S. government could respond to TikTok, if it chose to: there is no need to build a great firewall — simply give the order to Apple and Google. Centralization, at least from a central government’s perspective, has its uses.

It is also a reminder of the extent to which apps have won, at least as far as making money goes: India, unlike China, appears to be less concerned about limiting the flow of information at which the web excels, and more concerned about hurting China economically, and when it comes to making money, it is apps that matter more.

The final point to make is a more pragmatic one: the removal of TikTok (which again, has not yet been removed from users’ phones) provides a major opportunity for alternatives. Chingari, an Indian alternative, saw downloads spike over the last 24 hours, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Facebook push Lasso and Instagram Reels, its TikTok clones, into the Indian market as soon as possible. The best bet is probably Facebook’s offerings — the Indian government’s actions seem driven by anti-China sentiment more than pro-India protectionism — but now that this lever of control has been used, it may be hard for the Indian government or anyone else to give it up.

Update: While Apple and Google will play a role in this ban, I overstated it: as this Indian Express article explains, India has the capability at the ISP level to block these services:

The notification is expected to be followed by instructions to Internet service providers to block these apps. Users are likely to soon see a message saying access to the apps has been restricted on the request of the government. However, while this will impact apps like TikTok and UC News that need a live feed to serve any purpose, users might still be able to continue using apps that don’t need an active Internet connection to be used. But further downloads of these apps, like CamScanner, are likely to be blocked on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store.

My apologies for the imprecision; however, the overall thrust of the analysis holds.

Which takes me back to App Review. I wrote about Apple last week that “for all of the control Apple now has over its products, it is the things it can never control that represent the company’s biggest risk”; that line was about China, but India’s willingness to leverage the company’s total control of app installation simply reinforces the point that even Apple has to listen to governments, and that openness is about more than escaping a 30% tax.

Reddit and The Donald

Someone asked me in a private Slack discussion what I thought of Reddit’s decision to ban a number of subreddits, including r/The_Donald, in light of my endorsement of “More Speech”. I realized that I had, perhaps, not explained my position clearly, so let me be very explicit.

First, I believe that social media, by making everyone a publisher, and thus enabling “more speech”, has done more for social justice than anything else. The New York Times or Minneapolis Star Tribune could have reported on the George Floyd’s of this world for decades, and didn’t; it took camera phones and social networks. To that end, when I write about “more speech”, it is a defense of social networking generally.

Second, while my belief in the power of “more speech” does inform my overall position on Facebook’s approach, the chief reason why I support CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s overall posture to Trump’s personal posts is my extreme trepidation at an unaccountable private executive deciding what an elected politician can or cannot say. To put it another way, my concern is less about how Facebook is applying or not applying its power, and more about the unaccountable nature of that power.

Third, I have already laid out A Framework for Moderation, that explains why I think Reddit is free to do what they believe is right:

It makes sense to think about these positions of the stack very differently: the top of the stack is about broadcasting — reaching as many people as possible — and while you may have the right to say anything you want, there is no right to be heard. Internet service providers, though, are about access — having the opportunity to speak or hear in the first place. In other words, the further down the stack, the more legality should be the sole criteria for moderation; the further up the more discretion and even responsibility there should be for content:

Note the implications for Facebook and YouTube in particular: their moderation decisions should not be viewed in the context of free speech, but rather as discretionary decisions made by managers seeking to attract the broadest customer base; the appropriate regulatory response, if one is appropriate, should be to push for more competition so that those dissatisfied with Facebook or Google’s moderation policies can go elsewhere.

This absolutely applies to Reddit; what is interesting about /r/The_Donald, is that its members appear to agree: the subreddit was already mostly deserted as many members left for a Reddit clone a few months ago. It is worth noting that this is an option available to nearly everyone aggrieved by their treatment on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube; it is also worth noting that this is why infrastructure level control of the Internet — or App Stores! — is far more fraught.

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