New Delhi: If you are a videogame enthusiast hit hard by the ban on PUBG, or a social media aficionado still reeling under the Modi government’s bar on TikTok, you probably have a lot of questions.
Who decides what apps to block, and is there a way around the restrictions? If you have the apps on your phone, can you still use them?
You probably have questions even if you were yet to use any of the 177 Chinese apps blocked by the Modi government since June amid the border stand-off with China. For example, is there any chance you still have a shot at giving the apps a try?
ThePrint spoke to experts to get answers about the multiple questions surrounding India’s ban on Chinese apps, which is part of New Delhi’s reply to Beijing’s aggression on the border. Here’s what they said.
Who decides what apps are blocked?
On Wednesday, India blocked access to 118 Chinese apps, including PUBG, describing them as “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.
Since national security is cited as grounds, experts say, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would have been the first to draw up a list of apps to be banned.
“Typically, the home ministry would recommend a list of apps that impact India’s national security. This list of apps is then considered by the IT Ministry under Section 69A of the IT Act (‘power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource’) along with relevant provisions,” said Gulshan Rai, India’s former national cybersecurity co-ordinator.
“The IT ministry will notify app stores like Google Play Store and Apple App Store to block access to this list of apps. The IT ministry will also inform the companies that own the blocked apps to restrict access to the app,” Rai added.
The IT ministry, Rai said, will also write to the Telecom Department, which will then notify telecom and internet service providers (ISPs) to block IP addresses and domain name server connections linked to the notified apps.
The IT ministry may also write directly to the ISPs, but since the telecom department issues the licence that allows ISPs to operate, it is only appropriate for the telecom department to order the blocking, Rai added.
“If the ISP and TSP (telecom service provider) do not follow orders of the licensor (the telecom department), then their license can be revoked along with other penalties,” he said.
Can new users download the blocked apps?
If the app is removed from app stores, then chances of new users finding it for download are next to nil.
New users with an Android phone may, however, try looking for the APK file of the app somewhere online. APK stands for Android Package. An APK file will contain all the required code to run an app on your phone, but it may not contain the latest or most updated version of the app.
In addition to this, downloading an APK file from an unreliable site might compromise the security of your phone.
How are apps blocked by telecom & internet service providers?
Once service providers receive a notice from the Telecom Department, they need to tweak their servers to block access to the apps.
“Telecom and internet service providers reconfigure their web servers, which are effectively computer hardware/software systems, by writing in new commands that will prompt the software on the server/s to block traffic to and from the selected apps,” said telecom industry veteran Amitabh Singhal, the founder and former CEO of National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) that oversees internet traffic exchanges.
“Such traffic from the apps will be blocked at the port (the part where the traffic enters a network), so that traffic from the app cannot travel anywhere on its network,” he added.
Is it difficult and time-consuming to block apps?
“It only takes a couple of hours for an app store, ISP or TSP to block access to these 118 apps,” said Rai.
Telecom companies may, instead, face a headache in the ever-growing list of apps they must block.
“…When the number of blocked apps only keeps increasing, the telecom and internet service providers will have to keep increasing the computing power required to maintain the blocks on the apps,” he said.
Can existing users continue to use the blocked apps?
It depends on what kind of app it is.
Aseem Jakhar, co-founder of cybersecurity firm Payatu, had explained the difference in an earlier conversation with ThePrint. “For an app like TikTok that allows posting and viewing videos, the app on a user’s phone needs to communicate with the app company’s cloud/servers on the internet,” he had said.
“However, if access to the server or cloud is blocked by the internet service provider or the app company themselves, then, even if a user has the app, they will not be able to access its services. On the other hand, apps that perform functions like selfie-editing or saving space on your phone can perform as normal since these functions occur locally on your phone and don’t need communication with a server on the internet.”
Are there ways to circumvent the block?
Yes and no.
“Following the government order to block 118 apps, app stores and telecom service providers will have restricted access to these apps. Because of this new users can’t download the apps from app stores, and existing users will not be able access them since they are blocked by telecom and internet service providers,” said Jiten Jain, CEO of cybersecurity-focused non-profit Indian Infosec Consortium.
But, he added, there is a way if “you are hell bent on circumventing the ban”.
“One way to access a blocked app is through a VPN (virtual private network, which allows privacy and anonymity in internet activity). If the app company has set up a server to receive traffic from multiple countries including India, then a VPN could be used to work around the block in India and continue to use the app,” he said.
However, not even a VPN will work in some cases, he added. “…VPN might not work if the app company had set up a dedicated server to receive and communicate with internet traffic coming from India, and if the IP address for that server is blocked by the app company.”
Is this a permanent block?
No, it’s not a permanent block.
Abhishek Singh, the CEO of IT ministry’s MyGov portal, told ThePrint after the June app ban that the apps will be given a chance to present their case.
“As per the procedure defined in the rules, the apps, which have been blocked for access will be given an opportunity to explain and clarify to the committee constituted in this regard,” he had added.
Gulshan Rai offered a similar assessment. “The rules under which the apps are blocked has provisions for the app companies to explain and clarify their operations. These app companies can be given an opportunity to explain themselves to a committee constituted under the IT ministry either before or after a ban.
“However, in situations of emergencies as this, the respective app companies may explain and depose before the committee following the app blocking.”