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Politics puts wind in sails of India's homegrown social apps

Koo enjoys fifteenfold rise in users, while ShareChat is set for unicorn status

The Koo mobile app, launched last March with a yellow bird as its symbol, offers such Twitter-like functions as "follow," "retweet" and "love."   © Reuters

MUMBAI -- The Indian government is reacting hysterically to criticism from both within and outside the country of its handling of street protests by farmers over legislation aimed at reforming the agriculture sector. The demonstrations have been going on in New Delhi for more than three months.

In a rare response to private citizens, including singer Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted their support for protesting farmers, the government blasted out a statement on Feb. 3 that said, "The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible."

The government then proceeded to jail journalists, opposition politicians and online activists who ran critical articles or TV reports, or posted criticism on Twitter and other social media.

In parallel, the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, turned its fury against Twitter itself, issuing orders based on the Information Technology Act to block more than 1,000 accounts, accusing posters of engaging in disinformation over Sikh separatists and Pakistan.

This brazen action set off a dogfight between Twitter and the government. The U.S. microblog operator refused to take down the accounts of journalists, activists and politicians that the government had ordered it to block, arguing that doing so "would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law."

Twitter did not fully comply with the Indian government's order to close the accounts of activists and others as part of measures to counter protests against the agricultural sector reform.   © Reuters

The authorities responded by warning that Twitter's partial refusal to comply with the order is illegal. It threatened criminal charges and arrests of the company's India-based executives.

Twitter now faces a hard choice: compromise on its core principle of providing a free-speech platform by complying with the order, fight the issue in court or exit the Indian market. It is an echo of 2009, when Twitter was blocked in China on the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The political standoff between the Hindu nationalist government and the Western internet service and its users is benefiting one local company: Bangalore-based startup Bombinate Technologies, which operates a homegrown Twitter-like microblog called Koo.

In the first half of February, one cabinet minister after another signed up on the Koo app and started posting information on the site, mainly in Hindi. Ministries and agencies opened official accounts. Conservative actors and singers followed ruling-party politicians, "Kooing" to counter Twitter and its celebrity users.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, one of the top cabinet members and minister of electronics and information technology, is among the oldest fans of the homegrown social media app and has over half a million followers. He signed up last August, immediately after Koo won an award in a government-run technology contest, at which Modi praised Koo as a leader in Indian technology.

Prasad spoke for two days in a row during an upper house session of the parliament last week to advocate for Koo, saying, it is "a made-in-India app that has become a toast for success, and we should be proud of it."

Koo launched its mobile app just last March, with a yellow bird as its symbol, versus Twitter's blue bird. Functions such as "follow," "retweet" and "love" all mimic Twitter.

According to its co-founder and chief executive, Aprameya Radhakrishna, the app had 1.5 million to 2 million monthly active users in the latest October to December quarter. By the middle of last week, the number had topped 3 million, Radhakrishna told local media.

According to research company SensorTower, the Koo smartphone app was downloaded about 2.6 million times during the two weeks through Feb. 14, jumping more than fifteenfold from 180,000 downloads in the preceding two weeks. Its total downloads since its launch last March now stand at 5.8 million.

Koo is fully aware of the political tailwind and is trying to take advantage. When a user launches the app on an iPhone, its first welcome screen declares "Made with pride in India." Although there are no reports that Twitter use is declining in India, Modi and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may continue to migrate to Koo if the India-versus-Twitter battle escalates, even if Twitter stays active in the country.

Indian apps, such as the Instagram-like social media app ShareChat, are benefiting from the ban on Chinese apps and nationalistic sentiment among citizens.

The spat is nearly a replay of another case, in which nationalistic voices bolstered homegrown online services last year in the wake of the military clash between India and China in a disputed border region in the western Himalayas: Indians took to the streets and burned Chinese flags, and New Delhi banned more than 50 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok, a short-video sharing service and one of the most popular mobile apps among Indians.

The ban and the elevated nationalistic sentiment among citizens buoyed use of homegrown social services such as ShareChat, an Instagram-like social network. ShareChat's monthly active users ballooned from about 60 million before the Chino-India border conflict to more than 160 million today. As a result, its valuation is said to be reaching $1 billion, giving it unicorn status, in a soon-to-be-closed funding round, led by Google and Snap of the U.S., that will likely raise $300 million. Twitter is also a major shareholder in ShareChat, coincidentally.

The TikTok ban also helped such similar short-video social apps as Josh, operated by DailyHunt, and Roposo by InMobi.

Another foreign app that is among the most popular in India is WhatsApp, a subsidiary of Facebook. Facebook and WhatsApp are also facing a backlash from the Indian government, courts and users after they announced a change in their data-sharing policy.

Although the criticism led WhatsApp to postpone the implementation of the new rule, which will allow WhatsApp to share user data with its parent, Facebook, the complaints have persisted. Anecdotal evidence suggests the issue is helping ShareChat expand its user base, while another foreign chat app, Signal, operated by a U.S. nonprofit, is also gaining new Indian users.

It is true that domestic and international politics have started affecting tech businesses in India, as in other parts of the world. But it is also true that homegrown startups will face a severe test from Indian consumers who are, first and foremost, pragmatic and sensitive to the balance between cost and benefit.

Unless Indian developers make some breakthroughs to outperform U.S. giants in some respect, Indians may well end up sticking to WhatsApp and Twitter. That would make the current boom in homegrown apps look like a flash in the pan.

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