Chinese Checkers Of The Web
China has banned all popular apps and social media sites. But its ¬people are given local
equivalents that are popular as well as thriving.
Around late September last year, the Chinese government blocked WhatsApp messenger from
being used in the country’s mainland. This was the last big social media app to be banned by
the regime in Beijing. It marked another administrative crackdown on global social media
besides internet -based services and apps to suppress free opinion in cyberspace. The action
was also because of a strict internet censorship that China follows.
WhatsApp follows an end -to-end encryption system where it is difficult for anyone to tap into
the messages or data that run through the app. That made it impossible for the Chinese
government to tap into the data. Thus the administration has also clamped down on all apps
and services that store data outside of the country and supports data that is stored only
within it s boundaries. China wants to monitor all internet trac and has access to all
internet -based data owing in the country.
For the Chinese, WhatsApp was the last popular app to be banned. Before this, the country
had blocked several apps and services that are popularly used worldwide. Facebook, which is
the social media website that owns WhatsApp, was banned in China in mid -2009. Other
popular internet services banned in China include social media sites like Twitter, image –
sharing app Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Picasa, WordPress, Blogspot, Blogger,
Flickr, SoundCloud, Google Hangouts and Hootsuite
Even Google Play is banned, incapacitating Android users in China from downloading any app
from Google Play Store. Other social media apps like Telegram, Periscope and Line are also
not available in the country. What’s more, under the country’s strict internet censorship
policy, even Google search is blocked in China, apart from video -sharing apps like YouTube
and Vimeo. Also banned are Gmail and other Google services like Google Maps and Chrome. A
few people manage to use some of these websites and apps through virtual private networks
(VPNs), but the Chinese government has now brought in laws to restrict VPNs.
Yet there is one thing particularly interesting: the ban on these popular websites and apps has
allowed Chinese websites and apps to thrive in the country. Local people widely use them.
Interestingly, every global app or service has a popular Chinese equivalent. China has
successfully developed i ts own ecosystem featuring websites, social networks and apps that
are counterparts of popular global web services. The country has its own alternatives to
Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and e -commerce websites. China’s Twitter equivalent is
an app cal led Weibo, it has Baidu that is the equivalent to Google search, We chat, which is a
messenger service, and Youku, which is a video -hosting service much like YouTube.
China has an extremely popular social networking website called Renren that is the its version
of Facebook, while there is Alibaba and Taobao that make up for Amazon. While Google Mail
is banned in China, the country has QQ Mail as its most popular email service. “China has
taken this approach for a lot of their businesses. It’s a walled garden approach,” says K.K.
Mookhey, founder and CEO at Global Cyber Security Service Provider, Network Intelligence.
“They will use local companies to service the Chinese customers. Now they are also going
international. From a business perspective, they have done extremely well. Alibaba, Tencent
and Uber competitor DD have been super successful because of the numbers and because of
keeping international competition out of the market.”
Obviously, China has reasons to have a parallel universe on the internet. “The government
rationale behind this is safeguarding the political aairs and prevent illegal content,” says
Zakir Hussain, director, BD Soft, country partner of cyber security company Bitdefender.
“Privacy is maintained and the country isn’t dependent on other sites. Rather, it encourages
local social media platforms to grow and indirectly help the country’s economy.
Undoubtedly, this model has worked very positively for China, making it world’s safest cyber
China, being the world’s most populous country, has, needless to say, the numbers to support
these websites and apps. “China is the world’s second -largest consumer market after the
USA, and its economy is more than ve times the size of India’s. This by itself gives its large
digital platforms enough scale and heft,” says Lloyd Mathias, former PC Marketing Head of HP
(Asia -Pacic), who has rst -hand experience of the Chinese market. But more than that, it is
the seamless integration, he adds.
Citing an example, Mathias says Ten cent, one of the largest web media companies,
incorporates social networking, chat, music, e-commerce, payment systems, mobile gaming
and multiplayer online games. “This end-to-end integration makes them hugely sticky for
consumers, who can chat/play/shop/ interact with friends/listen to music and correspondingly
makes brands keen to sell on their platform hugely dependent on them. So they are
immensely portable,” he points out.
As for data security, China follows a law since June last year. Broad and in ux, its
implementation is reportedly unclear, says an expert.
Obviously, China has tweaked the model for internet companies, eliminating the need for
intrusive advertisements to generate revenue and make its internet rms portable. “Even if
you have a n alternative model, the business model has to be sustainable —and the Chinese
have proven it,” says Yash Mishra, founder and CEO of messaging and social networking
company Voxweb. “They have shown they can be portable without the need for ads. They
call it ‘social commerce’. They have embedded e-commerce in their social media through
which they generate revenue.”
All this, while having total control over the data and information owing over the internet in
that country. Abhishek A. Rastogi, partner, Khaitan & Co., notes that the Chinese model is
successful to the extent that it allows the government to have strict control of the data that
circulates within and goes out of the country. “It does not want to give unfettered access to
companies with servers outside its territorial control,” he says. “Besides, having an
unregulated network would shift power from the State to the citizens by providing an
extensive forum for discussion and opinion that can result in political quicksand for the
But with the government having access to all data in China, is there security of personal data?
Is it protected from leakage as has happened in India? Elonnai Hickok, COO of CIS, says China
has issued a personal information protection standard and the re is also a cyber security law
since June last year. “Its implementation has been reportedly unclear, as the law is broad and
in ux. There have been reports of data breaches in China that this law/standard could help
address,” she adds. “Data localisation makes it easier for the authorities to access data more
easily than if it was to be stored outside the borders and not subject to its laws.”
Can the China model be imposed in India, at least to provide security of data? Most experts
say India’s status as a democracy will make it impossible. More importantly, the government
having access to everything may not work in India and could lead to extended litigation in
times when personal data privacy is gaining mileage worldwide. “A hurdle is whether India
sees itself as allowing free trade or creating a homegrown ecosystem,” says Hickok. “China’s
model has many implications for freedom of expression, access to knowledge, trade and for
foreign investment that need to be thought through carefully.”
Also, the nature and construct of both economies are extremely different. Vis -à-vis China,
India is an open economy, thus more dependent on global economies for its business. Further,
censorship on electronic media with an unreasonable restriction has been and can be
challenged in the courts as a violation of fundamental rights. However, serious privacy
violations and data breaches can face legal sanction. Facebook, for example, is under close
scrutiny by the Indian government pursuant to recent revelation of data leaks .
One thing is clear. China has at least proved to the world that it can survive without global
giants and develop its own system that makes people self -sucient in their needs on the
internet and social media. Barring government -sponsored censorship, this leaves much for
India to learn.