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India first democracy to ban encrypted messaging apps on massive scale.

Only days before Press Freedom Day, India banned apps for secure communication because of "terrorists" use.

In India, apps including Briar, Element and Threema, got blocked beginning of May based on the arguments that these apps would be used by "terrorists" and that these apps would not have a "representative" for government contact based in India. However, it more looks like a strategic decision to stop Indian people from using secure and anonymous messaging apps. This makes India the first democracy to follow in the footsteps of authoritarian governments like Iran and Russia.

Apps banned in India

According to the Indian Express 14 mobile applications that provided end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) messaging services or enabled peer-to-peer (P2P) messaging, namely "Wickrme, Mediafire, Briar, BChat, Nandbox, Conion, IMO, Element, Second line, Zangi, Threema, Crypviser, Enigma, and Safeswiss", were blocked in India following the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) beginning of May. These apps have been blocked under Section 69A of the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000.

The 14 apps were banned because they were being used by "terrorists" and their supporters in Jammu and Kashmir, according to central intelligence agencies in India.

A source told the Indian Express that "the intelligence agencies also informed the MHA that most of these apps are designed to provide anonymity to their users and their features make it tough to resolve the entities associated with them. These mobile apps aid the "terrorists" and their affiliates to engage in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India and can disturb peace and harmony."

The block included Free Software apps, such as Briar and Element, which are now banned in India. The reason the officials give for justifying the ban is that these apps would not have "any representatives in India and cannot be contacted for seeking information as mandated by the Indian laws".

Comment by Element

However, Element already published a statement regarding the issue explaining that they do reply to Indian government requests: "While Element never compromises end-to-end encryption or user privacy, we have been contacted by Indian authorities in the past and addressed them in a constructive fashion (typically responding same-day). Indeed our Trust & Safety team works with governments to build safer secure communications for everyone; while ensuring user privacy and protecting end-to-end encryption."

This statement makes India's argumentation on why the block was necessary look less convincing. It would be very worrisome if India - as the first democratically elected government - goes down the same path as authoritarian governments like Iran and Russia where encrypted communication tools are blocked on a massive scale already.

Coincidentally, we in a coalition with 45+ organizations warned against exactly such a development in democratic countries in an open letter on Press Freedom Day - so around the same time as India issued the ban on these 14 apps.

Encryption brings safety

These governments tend to neglect that encryption brings safety - to all of us. We must not take privacy away from all citizens as this would make the web as such completely insecure.

Or, as Phil Zimmermann put it: "If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy."

Phil Zimmermann quote: If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.

Element's arguments go into the same direction:

"Some governments see undermining encryption as the most effective way to combat the ills of terrorism or other illegal behaviour. That approach is completely flawed; it just removes ordinary people’s ability to communicate in private which leaves them vulnerable to all types of surveillance, crime and subjugation."
"In actual fact, end-to-end encryption strengthens national security which is why Element has various parts of the French, German, Swedish, UK and US governments as customers."
"Undermining end-to-end encryption is an attack on people’s basic human right to privacy and security of communications. Rather than accept that as a cost to pay, we look to preserve and protect those rights, and to work with governments, journalists, non-profits, academic researchers and the rest of the tech industry to rise to the challenge of reducing those harms."

Indian Open Source Community files complaint

Based on statements like the one from Element who say they have not been contacted about the blockage indicate that reasoned blocking orders and a pre-decisional hearing were not provided to these 14 mobile apps. The Free Software Community of India (FSCI) argues that "denial of these rights violates Shreya Singhal v. Union of India and Section 69A Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act, 2000). Moreover, ambiguity exists around the territorial scope and extent of the ban, as it is unclear if the ban is applicable and enforceable across India or just in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir). Complete and absolute bans on mobile apps are a disproportionate restriction on the right to freedom of speech and expression. In efforts to advance transparency, IFF filed a series of Right to Information (RTI) applications with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and J&K police to obtain the blocking order, an exhaustive list of the banned apps, and to seek more information regarding it."

The FSCI says in a statement:

"The ban, we believe, will not serve the purpose as there are many anonymous alternate apps that can be used by terror outfits to fill their purpose."
"Federated, peer-to-peer, encrypted, Free Software apps/software like Element and Briar, should be promoted. They are key to our national security as they provide means to enable sovereign, private and secure communication to citizens of India. Element has been embraced by Governments of France 3, Germany 4 and Sweden 5 which should be an example for India."

A petition has been filed by people belonging to the Free Software Community of India in High Court of Kerala to publish the banning order as well as release the banned apps back to the public with the argumentation that the blocking order is illegal.

The broad grounds under which the ban on encrypted chat apps in India has been challenged are:

  • The impugned order has been passed without any notice and intimation to the concerned parties.
  • The impugned order violates Freedom of Speech and Expression and Right to Free Trade and Profession.
  • Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 does not leave any opportunity for the aggrieved party to seek redressal from a judicial authority.

The prayers that have been relied on for relief of the banned apps in India are:

  • A direction for the appropriate authorities to produce a copy of the order which sanctions the blocking.
  • To quash the order to the extent that Element and Briar are unblocked and the ban is lifted.
  • To set aside Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009.

The matter is set to come up on Tuesday, 16th of May, 2023 in Kerala High Court.

Right to privacy

The right to privacy and freedom of speech are closely connected and must be uphold in any democracy. Otherwise, democracy itself is at risk!

That's why we repeat the calls we made to policymakers on Press Freedom Day here. We call on governments to:

  • Ensure that encryption is not being undermined via overreaching legislative initiatives.
  • Ensure that technologies providing secure, encrypted services are not being blocked or throttled.
  • Revisit any bills, laws and policies that legitimise undermining encryption or blocking access to services offering encrypted communication, particularly the Surveillance Legislation Amendment Act in Australia, the EARN IT Act in the US, the Online Safety Bill in the UK, Bill C26 in Canada, India’s Directions 20(3)/2022 - CERT-In and the proposed version of the rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse in the EU.

Together we must stand up for privacy and freedom of speech!

Full list of Chinese apps banned in India

Apart from these encrypted chat apps that are banned in Jammu and Kashmir, India is known for banning apps, particularly Chinese ones such PUBG Mobile, WeChat, and TikTok.

For instance, India imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps, including the messaging app WeChat, in 2020 over privacy and security concerns. To date, hundreds of Chinese apps are banned in India, including PUBG Mobile, Tiktok, Shein, WeChat, AliExpress and more.

List of banned apps

Chinese apps banned in India in June 2020

  1. TikTok
  2. Shareit
  3. Likee
  4. Clash of Kings
  5. Club Factory
  6. Weibo
  7. WeChat
  8. DU battery saver
  9. Helo
  10. Kwai
  11. YouCam makeup
  12. Mi Community
  13. CM Browers
  14. Virus Cleaner
  15. APUS Browser
  16. ROMWE
  17. Baidu map
  18. Newsdog
  19. Beutry Plus
  20. UC Browser
  21. UC News
  22. QQ Mail
  23. Shein
  24. Xender
  25. QQ Music
  26. QQ Newsfeed
  27. Bigo Live
  28. SelfieCity
  29. Mail Master
  30. Parallel Space
  31. Mi Video Call Xiaomi
  32. WeSync
  33. ES File Explorer
  34. Viva Video QU Video Inc
  35. Meitu
  36. Vigo Video
  37. New Video Status
  38. DU Recorder
  39. Vault- Hide
  40. Cache Cleaner DU App studio
  41. DU Cleaner
  42. DU Browser
  43. Hago Play With New Friends
  44. Cam Scanner
  45. Clean Master Cheetah Mobile
  46. Wonder Camera
  47. Photo Wonder
  48. QQ Player
  49. We Meet
  50. Sweet Selfie
  51. Baidu Translate
  52. Vmate
  53. QQ International
  54. QQ Security Center
  55. QQ Launcher
  56. U Video
  57. V fly Status Video
  58. Mobile Legend

Chinese apps banned in India in September 2020

  1. Baidu
  2. PUBG MOBILE Nordic Map: Livik
  4. Rise of Kingdoms: Lost Crusade
  5. APUS Flashlight-Free & Bright
  6. Cut Cut Cut Out & Photo Background Editor
  7. APUS Launcher Pro- Theme, Live Wallpapers, Smart
  8. Baidu Express Edition
  9. FaceU Inspire your Beauty
  10. ShareSave by Xiaomi: Latest gadgets, amazing deals
  11. CamCard Business Card Reader
  12. CamCard Business
  13. CamCard for Salesforce
  14. CamOCR
  15. InNote
  16. VooV Meeting Tencent Video Conferencing
  17. APUS Launcher -Theme, Call Show, Wallpaper, HideApps
  18. WeChat reading
  19. Government WeChat
  20. Small Q brush
  21. Tencent Weiyun
  22. Pitu
  23. WeChat Work
  24. Cyber Hunter
  25. Cyber Hunter Lite
  26. Knives Out-No rules, just fight!
  27. Super Mecha Champions
  28. LifeAfter
  29. Dawn of Isles
  30. Ludo World-Ludo Superstar
  31. Chess Rush
  32. Super Clean Master of Cleaner, Phone Booster
  33. APUS Security -Antivirus, Phone security, Cleaner
  34. APUS Turbo Cleaner 2020- Junk Cleaner, Anti-Virus
  35. Art of Conquest: Dark Horizon
  36. Dank Tanks
  37. Warpath
  38. Game of Sultans
  39. Gallery Vault Hide Pictures And Videos
  40. Smart AppLock (App Protect)
  41. Message Lock (SMS Lock)-Gallery Vault Developer Team
  42. Hide App-Hide Application Icon
  43. AppLock
  44. AppLock Lite
  45. Dual Space Multiple Accounts & App Cloner
  46. ZAKZAK Pro Live chat & video chat online
  47. ZAKZAK LIVE: live-streaming & video chat app
  48. Music Mp3 Player
  49. Music Player Audio Player & 10 Bands Equalizer
  50. HD Camera Selfie Beauty Camera
  51. Cleaner Phone Booster
  52. Web Browser & Fast Explorer
  53. Video Player All Format for Android
  54. Photo Gallery HD & Editor
  55. Photo Gallery & Album
  56. Music Player Bass Booster Free Download
  57. HD Camera Beauty Cam with Filters & Panorama
  58. HD Camera Pro & Selfie Camera
  59. Music Player MP3 Player & 10 Bands Equalizer
  60. Gallery HD
  61. Web Browser Fast, Privacy & Light Web Explorer
  62. Web Browser Secure Explorer
  63. Music player Audio Player
  64. Video Player All Format HD Video Player
  65. Lamour Love All Over The World
  66. Amour- video chat & call all over the world.
  67. MV Master Make Your Status Video & Community
  68. MV Master Best Video Maker & Photo Video Editor
  69. APUS Message Center-Intelligent management
  70. LivU Meet new people & Video chat with strangers
  71. Carrom Friends : Carrom Board & Pool Game-
  72. Ludo All Star- Play Online Ludo Game & Board Games
  73. Bike Racing : Moto Traffic Rider Bike Racing Games
  74. Rangers Of Oblivion : Online Action MMO RPG Game
  75. Z Camera Photo Editor, Beauty Selfie, Collage
  76. GO SMS Pro Messenger, Free Themes, Emoji
  77. U-Dictionary: Oxford Dictionary Free Now Translate
  78. Ulike Define your selfie in trendy style
  79. Tantan Date For Real
  80. MICO Chat: New Friends Banaen aur Live Chat karen
  81. Kitty Live Live Streaming & Video Live Chat
  82. Malay Social Dating App to Date & Meet Singles
  83. Alipay
  84. AlipayHK
  85. Mobile Taobao
  86. Youku
  87. Road of Kings- Endless Glory
  88. Sina News
  89. Netease News
  90. Penguin FM
  91. Murderous Pursuits
  92. Tencent Watchlist (Tencent Technology
  93. Learn Chinese AI-Super Chinese
  94. HUYA LIVE Game Live Stream
  95. Little Q Album
  96. Fighting Landlords Free and happy Fighting Landlords
  97. Hi Meitu
  98. Mobile Legends: Pocket
  99. VPN for TikTok
  100. VPN for TikTok
  101. Penguin E-sports Live assistant
  102. Buy Cars-offer everything you need, special offers and low prices
  103. iPick
  104. Beauty Camera Plus Sweet Camera & Face Selfie
  105. Parallel Space Lite Dual App
  106. “Chief Almighty: First Thunder BC
  107. MARVEL Super War NetEase Games
  108. AFK Arena
  109. Creative Destruction NetEase Games
  110. Crusaders of Light NetEase Games
  111. Mafia City Yotta Games
  112. Onmyoji NetEase Games
  113. Ride Out Heroes NetEase Games
  114. Yimeng Jianghu-Chu Liuxiang has been fully upgraded
  115. Legend: Rising Empire NetEase Games
  116. Arena of Valor: 5v5 Arena Games
  117. Soul Hunters
  118. Rules of Survival

Chinese apps banned in November 2020

  1. AliExpress
  2. Alibaba Workbench
  3. Adore App
  4. Alipay Cashier
  5. Lalamove India Delivery App
  6. Drive with Lalamove India
  7. AliSuppliers Mobile App
  8. CamCard Business Card Reader
  9. CamCard BCR (Western)
  10. Soul- Follow the soul to find you
  11. Chinese Social Free Online Dating Video App & Chat
  12. Date in Asia Dating & Chat For Asian Singles
  13. WeDate-Dating App
  14. Free dating app-Singol, start your date!
  15. Snack Video
  16. TrulyChinese Chinese Dating App
  17. TrulyAsian Asian Dating App
  18. ChinaLove: dating app for Chinese singles
  19. DateMyAge: Chat, Meet, Date Mature Singles Online
  20. AsianDate: find Asian singles
  21. FlirtWish: chat with singles
  22. Guys Only Dating: Gay Chat
  23. Tubit: Live Streams
  24. WeWorkChina
  25. First Love Live- super hot live beauties live online
  26. Rela Lesbian Social Network
  27. Cashier Wallet
  28. MangoTV
  29. MGTV-HunanTV official TV APP
  30. WeTV TV version
  31. WeTV Cdrama, Kdrama&More
  32. WeTV Lite
  33. Lucky Live-Live Video Streaming App
  34. Taobao Live
  35. DingTalk
  36. Identity V
  37. Isoland 2: Ashes of Time
  38. BoxStar (Early Access)
  39. Heroes Evolved
  40. Happy Fish
  41. Jellipop Match-Decorate your dream island
  42. Munchkin Match: magic home building
  43. Conquista Online II

Chinese apps banned in February 2022

  1. Garena Free Fire Illuminate
  2. Beauty Camera Selfie Camera
  3. Lica Cam selfie camera app
  4. Music Player- Music.Mp3 Player
  5. Voice Recorder & Voice Changer
  6. Music Plus MP3 Player
  7. Equalizer Pro Volume Booster & Bass Booster
  8. Viva Video Editor Snack Video Maker with Music
  9. Music Player Equalizer & MP3
  10. Volume Booster Loud Speaker & Sound Booster
  11. Music Player MP3 Player
  12. CamCard for SalesForce Ent
  13. Isoland 2: Ashes of Time Lite
  14. Rise of Kingdoms: Lost Crusade
  15. APUS Security HD (Pad Version)
  16. Parallel Space Lite 32 Support
  17. Video Player Media All Format
  18. Nice video baidu
  19. Tencent Xriver
  20. Onmyoji Chess
  21. Onmyoji Arena
  22. AppLock
  23. Dual Space Lite Multiple Accounts & Clone App
  24. Dual Space Pro Multiple Accounts & App Cloner
  25. DualSpace Lite 32Bit Support
  26. Dual Space 32Bit Support
  27. Dual Space 64Bit Support
  28. Dual Space Pro 32Bit Support
  29. Conquer Online MMORPG Game
  30. Conquer Online Il
  31. Live Weather & Radar Alerts
  32. Notes- Color Notepad, Notebook
  33. MP3 Cutter Ringtone Maker & Audio Cutter
  34. Equalizer & Bass Booster Music Volume EQ
  35. Barcode Scanner QR Code Scan
  36. Equalizer Bass Booster & Volume EQ & Virtualizer
  37. EVE Echoes
  38. Astracraft
  39. UU Game Booster-network solution for high ping
  40. Extraordinary Ones
  41. Badlanders
  42. Stick Fight: The Game Mobile
  43. Twilight Pioneers
  44. CuteU: Match With The World
  45. Small World-Enjoy groupchat and video chat
  46. CuteU Pro
  47. FancvU Video Chat & Meetup
  48. Real: Go Live. Make Friends
  49. MoonChat: Enjoy Video Chats
  50. Real Lite -video to live!
  51. Wink: Connect Now
  52. FunChat Meet People Around You
  53. FancyU pro Instant Meetup through Video chat!
  54. Beauty Camera: Sweet Selfie HD

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