IT’S A bird! It’s an app! It’s Koo!
A little yellow bird, very much like a little blue bird, caused feathers to fly the past fortnight when, in a matter of days, its user base zoomed to a whopping 4.2 million. Founders Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka said the idea behind their logo was simple, telling Financial Express Online they were looking for “an emotional creature that defines the sense of spreading a message”, so obviously it had to be bird; they wanted it to be a happy bird, that’s why the colour yellow; and that their yellow bird was “a happy bird spreading good messages among the community in India”.
To others, it wasn’t as simple as that. The app that is less than a year into its launch really took flight when, coinciding with the government’s spat with Twitter, BJP leaders, ministers and government departments announced (one after the other, on Twitter) that they were on Koo now. If the signal to Twitter with the bird logo and the name evoking a bird call was clear, so was the signal to others: the Koo app logo includes a strip in colours of the national flag, emblazoned with the words ‘Made with Pride in India’.
If Koo is the biggest success story so far of a homegrown app taking on a global giant, there are others taking baby steps — hand-held by the government with its AtmaNirbhar Bharat campaign. These include platforms for microblogging, maps and navigation, instant messaging and video-sharing, among others.
The push comes even as a regulatory framework is tightening the noose around big-tech firms, over everything from content to compliance, and as they find themselves on the back foot around the world. The most comprehensive of these measures came last week when the government announced guidelines for social media intermediaries.
A byte off Big Tech
While the long reach of big tech social media, used well by the BJP government for both own programmes and election campaigns, meant it earlier exercised caution in alienating them, that reticence now seems over. The push for homegrown appears to be part of the efforts to rein in the big tech.
The push for a Made in India app ecosystem seems to have two triggers. The first was the ban on Chinese apps mid last year, following the border skirmish. On July 4, the government announced the AatmaNirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge, drawing 6,940 entries, including start-ups from Tier 2 & 3 towns, competing for categories from business (fintech and agritech) and eLearning to entertainment and news. Twenty-four apps made the cut, including Koo — with Prime Minister Narendra Modi making a mention of the yellow bird in his Mann ki Baat address.
The second trigger was the exchange of words between the Union IT Ministry and Twitter after the social media firm dithered over the government’s instructions to block certain accounts following the January 26 violence in Delhi.
Earlier this month, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) unveiled a tie-up with Delhi-based firm MapmyIndia for mapping and other location-based services in India. On February 11, MapmyIndia put out on LinkedIn: “Announcing a path-breaking Aatmanirbhar Bharat milestone in maps and geospatial technologies. You don’t need Goo*le Maps/Earth any longer!”. On February 22, the government said it was “radically liberalising” India’s mapping policy, “specifically for Indian companies”, which means they can handle geospatial information now without prior approval or restriction.
This booster shot is helped by a constellation of Indian satellites called NavIC, or Navigation with Indian Constellation, that has been developed by the government for accurate real-time positioning data in the country, especially outside the top 30 cities.
2020 also saw work start on an instant messaging platform called Sandes on the lines of WhatsApp, by the IT ministry’s National Informatics Centre. A government official said Sandes was currently restricted to official government communication. However, the FAQ page on the Sandes website suggests that anyone with a mobile number or an e-mail ID can use the app.
Sandes isn’t the only WhatsApp-like plan on the government’s table either. The Department of Telecommunication’s Centre for Development of Telematics is working on Samvad, which has been labelled an ‘Indian WhatsApp’.
Local variants, a number of them, have however not managed to usurp the market vacated by the video-sharing app TikTok, which was banned for its Chinese links. At last count, TikTok had 611 million downloads in India (the largest in the world). A way around is reportedly being worked out, with the government helping along a deal that could see TikTok’s India operations being sold to an Indian company.
“SoftBank has been roped in to get one of its other investee companies, InMobi, to merge the Indian operations of the Chinese app with one of its operational apps. There’s a government push for this, at least with respect to regulatory clearance,” a senior executive in know of the talks told The Sunday Express.
The Modi government’s desire to have skin in the game is not surprising — given how social media has been key to not just the NDA government’s governance strategy but also to the BJP’s mammoth election apparatus.
In his early days, one of the highlights of PM Modi’s visit to the US, in September 2015, was the joint town hall meeting at the Facebook headquarters with founder Mark Zuckerberg. Modi pointed out the gap between the government and people that can be bridged using social media. “With social media, there is daily voting. Right now as we speak, people are voting, that what Modi is saying is good or bad,” he had said.
In 2018 and 2019, respectively, Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp got away with no real or regulatory backlash after the Cambridge Analytica and Israeli surveillance tool Pegasus scandals.
What has changed is the growing perception of “arbitrary censorship” by social media giants. Alarm bells rang when Twitter took the unprecedented decision to suspend the account of the then US President Donald Trump following the violence at Capitol Hill. Twitter’s decision to not extend the same measure to accounts red-flagged by the Indian government, after the January 26 violence days later, was seen by Delhi as a sign of the microblogging platform’s power as well as “hypocrisy”. The January 26 incidents flowed from the now four-month-long farm protests that have caused the government some embarrassment on social media internationally.
The government conveyed the “dissatisfaction over Twitter’s differential treatment in the two incidents” to its senior executives at a meeting with IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney earlier this month.
What lends the government pushback muscle are the questions being raised increasingly against Internet companies across countries, in matters ranging from antitrust and compliance with law enforcement, to privacy and freedom of speech and jurisdictions. In the US, the Trump administration had attempted doing away with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In India, the regulations announced last week cover the same ground, calling for exceptions to safe harbour norms that allow firms leniency over content posted on their platforms.
The US Senate has held hearings with CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google over content moderation. In the European Union and Australia, Google and Facebook are being pushed to compensate media companies for using their content — a step being watched closely by other countries. Last week, the Indian Newspaper Society asked Google to pay Indian newspapers “comprehensively” for content.
In its meeting on February 10 with Twitter following the face-off over some January 26 posts, and then tweets with hashtag ‘ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide’, the IT Secretary said “in very clear terms that they (Twitter officials) should not teach India how to interpret its own laws on free speech”.
A senior official told The Sunday Express, “Our message to them was clear, that you are not here to preach. You are here to do business, so please do that by following Indian laws. If you have a problem with our orders, feel free to challenge them in a court of law. But first follow the orders.”
Officials say it was this face-off that also prompted the government to bring out of the cold storage draft guidelines for social media that had been first floated three years ago.
In a reaction to the new social media guidelines, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We have always been clear as a company that we welcome regulations that set guidelines for addressing today’s toughest challenges on the Internet… We will carefully study the new rules… Facebook is an ally for India.”
Koo co-founder Mayank Bidwatka called the guidelines a clarification of “the responsibilities of intermediaries”. “Only a small fraction of social media users are found to be making posts which may be against the laws of the land… We are committed to abide by the laws of the land. This policy will help protect the interest of citizens at large and keep nefarious elements at bay.”
Sunil K Goyal, the managing director at Your Nest, an early-stage venture capital fund, says it would be unfair to let government support to the homegrown apps colour one’s view of them. “Anyone who has insights into consumer habits and preferences can make it big. Online brokerage Zerodha entered a market where large banks and institutions are well-entrenched but it still managed to become a unicorn. Ultimately, it’s about consumer insight. If they have it, money will chase them,” Goyal says.
However, a conducive regulatory framework clearly helps. A Bengaluru-based investor gave the example of the Softbank-backed Hike Messenger, which attempted to compete with WhatsApp. Despite all the monetary backing, it had to ultimately throw in the towel after almost eight years of operation.
“Two things will decide whether these apps can be successful — one is of course quality as the user has a choice, and second is the regulatory framework. If the government puts regulatory (hurdles)… that could be an issue. But if it is an open marketplace, then the quality of the app and the insight they would have about the Indian user compared to someone in Menlo Park or Mountain View or Palo Alto, will have a bearing. In several sectors like banking, homegrown entities have been more successful. So if the government pushes it, it can help local players for sure,” says Amit Somani, Managing Partner, Prime Ventures.
One apprehension raised by experts is possible data breaches in the race for these new apps, in the absence of a data privacy law. With data dirt-cheap and smartphone prices falling, India is looking at consumption skyrocketing to 25 GB per month per user by 2025, or more than 20 exabytes or 1 billion GB per month overall. (During the July-September quarter, average wireless data usage per user per month was a little below 12 GB.)
That’s a lot of additional data, and a lot of advertising revenue, without any privacy or personal data protection law. The IT Act of 2000 provides just a broad framework, while a personal data protection Bill has seen several changes and has been pending for close to three years now.
The new version says a committee comprising the Cabinet Secretary, Law Secretary and IT Secretary will select a Data Protection Authority — in contrast to the 2018 draft that put the onus on either the Chief Justice of India (CJI) or a Supreme Court judge nominated by the CJI. A joint parliamentary committee that is deliberating on the new Bill questioned Internet intermediaries in October over several days, about the privacy policies they adopt for users in India.
The author of the original draft, retired Supreme Court judge Justice B N Srikrishna, is not pleased at the changes. He has called the revised Bill “a blank cheque to the State”.