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Democracies claim that spreading democratic values and upholding an open internet is contingent upon countering Russia and China’s authoritarian influence and their growing influence on technology. However, this focus risks obscuring a fundamental requirement for democratic resilience in politics and technology: that societies must resist their own domestic inclinations to adopt repressive principles. To defend against those impulses, democracies need to candidly assess the trajectory of their own policies while also protecting their citizens from extraterritorial authoritarianism from adversarial nations. India’s recent restriction of Chinese applications offers an important case study that helps unpack this argument.

In 2020, after continued tensions and clashes at the border with China, India’s government banned over one hundred Chinese apps. This accompanied other sanctions on Chinese technology, including blocking Huawei and ZTE from participating in 5G trials and imposing cumbersome obligations on Chinese foreign direct investment.

 

Arindrajit Basu
Arindrajit Basu is the research lead at India’s Centre for Internet and Society.

The app ban was designed to reduce India’s economic and technological dependence on China and to hinder Chinese state surveillance purportedly facilitated by the apps. Proponents of decoupling rightfully argued that economic reliance upon such an unpredictable and adversarial neighbor limited New Delhi’s means to counter China. The government directives announcing the ban also justified it as a way to promote digital democracy, citing concerns of Chinese data mining, the risk of digital profiling by foreign entities, and protecting the privacy of citizens as reasons for the restriction.

Policymakers drew an important distinction between India’s digital values and China’s repressive approach to technology. However, if India is genuinely committed to countering digital repression, it needs to carefully scrutinize democratic integrity at home. For instance, the legal provision used by the government to impose this restriction (Section 69A of the Information Technology Act) has been criticized by pro-democracy advocates for facilitating censorship. India also failed to publish a thorough public report on the restricted Chinese apps, which made it more difficult for citizens to understand the government’s rationale for the ban. The process for blocking Chinese apps was opaque and rooted in problematic legislation, which undermines India’s democratic ideals.

Furthermore, while concerns over China’s digital surveillance architecture are justified, India’s surveillance policy is in dire need of reform. This has been underscored by recent revelations alleging the government’s deployment of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists, lawyers, activists, and bureaucrats. Banning Chinese apps is one method of curtailing repressive Chinese influence, but the authorities must also restrict their own discretionary powers of surveillance to prevent misuse and preserve the trust of citizens.

The case of India has implications for all countries seeking to strengthen digital democracy, including the members of the G7. For democracies, ensuring rule of law and human rights protections within their borders is just as critical as sustaining military might or economic progress. Countries in multilateral coalitions that seek to promote democratic values must also facilitate uncomfortable conversations about their own democratic shortcomings. In the end, governments around the world will not preserve democratic norms simply because that is what other nations preach; democracies must demonstrate, in practice, the merits of upholding digital freedoms and the rule of law.