With the locking out, ironically during the times of a lockdown, of 59 Chinese apps in India that some are reading as the building of the great Indian firewall, technology has finally emerged as a geopolitical weapon.

On India’s part, the “emergency move” may be part populist, part symbolic. With India’s stated “threat to sovereignty and integrity” card owing to “secret transmitting of users’ data” by the apps to servers outside India, the interlinkage of politics, national sovereignty, and economics becomes loud and clear. The lines are no longer blurring. The butterfly effect is for all to see.

The shut-out also serves as a taste of its own medicine for the Chinese authorities just as they shunted out the American big-tech companies with blanket bans. On China’s part, ambitious plans to build a digital silk route for the 21st century also come a cropper.

The India market is a very lucrative one for the world majors for reasons of it being populous and not saturated. The decision deals a blow to the Chinese big-tech companies—Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu. Of the 59 apps, ByteDance probably has the largest to lose what with 610 million installations according to estimates by Sensor Tower, a data firm. This compares with the U.S. app installs at 165 million.

The TikTok story

At 200 million users alone for TikTok from India and being among the top 10 apps on Google Play Store and Apple App Store, TikTok’s loss maybe YouTube’s gain; Facebook will also stand to benefit. Not to mention the indigenous kids on the block—Roposo, which has taken out a press release claiming to be “India’s No. 1 short video app after the TikTok ban”; and Chingari which has registered stupendous numbers after the ban and serves as the Indian TikTok; the highly successful ShareChat; and yet another claimant called Trell.

For the TikTok creators and users, it is a loss. The empowerment, the language agnosticism, and the ease of use are what made it into a sensation. While revenues from the Indian market were abysmal till now, there was a good reason to believe that India would one day have played catch-up, what with TikTok expected to turn in $500 million in revenues in the U.S. alone this year, up from the $200 million-$300 million that it did last year globally. And the potential valuation loss is another story.

While executives in the competitive companies may rejoice, the move is interpreted by watchdogs as blanket censorship being used to advance political agenda.

The Indian government, however, has limited leverage with greater dependence on Chinese imports. India is also entering into the deep thick of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With bilateral trade already in favour of China, the challenge before China is not knowing how to retaliate economically.

The issue is far more complex than the fight out between the world’s two most populous nations at about 14,000 feet above sea level at the Himalayan border. Nor is it the Line of Actual Control.

For TikTok, the damage last year of a ban in India was reported at $15 million a month. The consumer Internet is the new geopolitical battleground. In a big game, TikTok, the 50-plus other apps and potentially more, are nothing but part of collateral damage.

India is amongst the fastest-growing large economies of the world. The world’s technology majors—from Beijing to the Silicon Valley—realise the tremendous opportunities that the seismic shift from the old economy to the digital economy is throwing open in the country. With a size of $200 billion for its digital economy, India is too lucrative to ignore for the world’s tech giants—Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix.

The swords are out over the core commodity: data. Activated across contexts and aggregated with others, ever-growing in quantity, range, and value with implications across the social, economic, political, and technological fabric. Data is not a neutral field. Governance is imperative.

Internet governance

India’s move also serves as a precursor to how economies around the world may decide to follow the Internet governance playbook to limit the exposure of that precious commodity while safeguarding their people’s data.

There is the opportunity for the Indian government to chart a new course as different from the U.S. data protection model of restraining the state, the European model of privileging the individual, and the Chinese model of serving the collective—in the process creating an independent global statesman position for New Delhi.

Governments around the world are waking up to the power of the Internet and data. Reclaiming all things digital seems to be the overriding agenda for governments around the world. The loss is that of technology what with digital walls coming up everywhere and the users landing up with a non-open fractured Internet.

It’s probably an awakening to the “techno-nationalism” that reflects notably across political, economic, social, cultural, national security and perhaps several other aspects of geopolitics. The U.S.-Huawei face-off is too well known. And now the India act.

The digital world, for all its original promises of a connected world, is looking no different from the physical one.

Views are personal. The author is Executive-in-Residence at ISB and at UCLA, and a global CEO coach and a C-Suite + Start-up advisor.

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