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Amid Rising Tensions with Twitter, Koo App India Rises in Popularity

Feb 12, 2021 2:25 PM 6 min read

What is Atma Nirbhar Bharat’s answer to Twitter? “Koo”...they say.

Launched in early 2020, the Koo app was co-founded by entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidwatka. The microblogging app’s primary pitches are its made-in-India-ness and its multilingualism (that the majority of Indians don’t know English while the internet is heavily English-centric, so there is a need for a social media platform in regional languages).

Furthermore, Radhakrishna was the founder of the booking service TaxiForSure, which was bought by Ola Cabs. And Koo’s parent company is Bombinate Technologies, which owns Vokal, the Indian version of Quora. The Koo app was also a winner of last year’s Atma Nirbhar App Innovation Challenge.

As you can see, “Make in India” and “Vocal for Local” are not merely slogans for Koo. They’re its central selling point and the main reason for its allure.

Koo App's Swift Rise

In only a year’s time, Koo has enjoyed a meteoric rise. Today, it boasts over 3 million users. (For comparison: Twitter has 15 million users in India.)

Koo began to amass popularity last year thanks to the Government-led drive to increase the clout of India-made apps. This was due to two main reasons:

  1. The Atma Nirbhar Bharat-inspired push for self-reliance in wake of the pandemic. 
  2. The growing hostility to foreign tech platforms, particularly those from China, many of which were outright banned amid escalating border tensions.

But Koo’s day in the sun came in recent weeks as relations between Twitter and the Indian Government soured.


The Indian Government’s War on Twitter

Twitter’s standing in the world’s second-largest internet economy has taken a battering in recent days.

That’s not to say that the social media giant’s India presence has been smooth. The country is among the top five when it comes to content removal requests, something that has skyrocketed in recent years.

But over the past few days, matters have nosedived. The Government had asked the San Francisco-based company to take down over 1,000 accounts over allegations that they are funded by enemy states to sow discord in the country amid the farmer protests against the three recently-passed farm laws.

Initially, Twitter held its ground, reinstating many of the accounts it temporarily suspended during its review, saying there was "insufficient justification" for continuing suspension. But on Wednesday, under Government threats of legal action - which could have meant seven years of jail time for Twitter’s local employees - it gave in, permanently suspending hundreds of accounts and blocking several hashtags within India.

While a meeting between Twitter and officials reportedly took place on Wednesday, the Government’s ire has evidently not been doused. Speaking in Parliament yesterday, the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad sternly warned that social media platforms like Twitter had to “respect Indian law”, adding that the IT Act would be amended to make such platforms more “accountable”. The minister had previously said that Twitter was “obliged to obey the directions of the Government” and that refusal to do so “will invite penal action”.

Speaking of Mr. Prasad, he is a fan of Koo too. As are several ministers, MPs, Chief Ministers, celebrities and Government departments. This is an important point, because for a sizable exodus from Twitter, the who’s who of Indian Twitter would have to migrate to Koo in the first place.


How Does Koo App Work?

Is Koo the proverbial new wine in an old bottle? Or should we feathers on an old bird?

(No, really. Koo’s logo is a yellow bird that looks a lot like Larry, who is Twitter’s mascot.)

Amid Rising Tensions with Twitter, Koo App India Rises in PopularityIn more ways than one, Koo is a lot like Twitter, both in design and functionality. It’s a microblogging platform where users can share text, audio, video and photos. They can use hashtags and tag other users using “@”. There's also the option of direct messaging (DM).

To be fair, there are also some differences. The character limit for a post on Koo is 400, as opposed to a tweet’s 280. Koo supports many Indian languages (Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese and Gujarati). And Koo’s user interface, while quite similar to Twitter’s, is yellow and not blue (we know that’s not much, but still...).


Controversies and Concerns about Koo

Koo’s sudden thrust to the spotlight brought with it increased scrutiny.

One concern was that the app was not, despite its claims, truly “Indian”. China’s Shunwei Capital, the VC arm of Xiaomi, holds a 11.1% stake in Bombinate Technologies. However, it will reportedly be exiting its investment by July this year.

The second concern surrounded data security. French cybersecurity researcher Robert Baptiste (aka Elliot Alderson) tweeted that the app was leaking user information including name, email ID, date of birth, marital status, gender etc.

FYI: Elliot Anderson had earlier written about the vulnerabilities in Aadhaar and Aarogya Setu. He also sat down with TRANSFIN. on our Podcast to discuss the Government’s tricky relationship with users’ data. Listen here!

Now, possible leakage of personal information sounds bad. But factor in that Koo now has 3 million+ accounts, many of which belong to ministers and ministries, and the horizon darkens further.

But co-founder Bidwatka has admonished the claims as “invalid”. He tweeted: “The data visible is something that the user has voluntarily shown on their profile of Koo. It cannot be termed a data leak. If you visit a user profile you can see it anyway.”

However, he later added that, following the allegations, the company had now blocked public access to emails of users. (Mr. Anderson says the loopholes still exist. His Twitter thread can be read here.)

There is also a third worry. Koo’s recent rise took place during a heavily charged and partisan time (but then again, that’s every day). As such, critics of the Government’s line against Twitter have not particularly embraced Koo. And many (if not most) of those who have opened accounts on Koo are Government officials or celebrities and media houses whose views align with the Government’s. Assuming that those on Koo remain there and don’t return to Twitter, this may enable dangerous echo chambers, which could further divide an already divided populace.


Reaction Asymmetry

The Government’s threats against Twitter and the latter’s acquiescence to the same display a disparity that shows India in a rather unflattering light.

In the US, Twitter has maintained a relatively consistent advocacy for its autonomy, even if it meant not treading the Government’s line. In fact, only last month it strikingly suspended the account of Donald Trump - who was still the President - permanently.

Juxtapose this with Twitter suspending hundreds of accounts based on Government demands in India out of fear that its local employees could be thrown into prison...that doesn’t particularly reflect well on the “world’s largest democracy”, does it?

As for Koo, it remains to be seen whether it will prove to be an actual competitor to Twitter or if it will fade away after its 15 minutes of fame. The latter’s probability is not low, to be fair. Remember Tooter? It was a made-in-India “swadeshi” alternative to “videshi” Twitter that was briefly popular in November. Then there was Mastodon, which briefly benefited from a rising revolt against Twitter from Indian users accusing it of censoring content, restricting accounts and failing to act against trolls.

Neither of these challenges lived up to their expectations. Both fizzled out.

In conclusion, it may be interesting to note that in opposing “foreign” companies like Twitter, India is embracing a model of penalising these apps and showering state support on local variants that are largely rip-offs of the foreign apps.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because it has been the go-to policy of the Chinese government for a long time. And seeing eye-to-eye with the Chinese Communist Party may be a reputation that India may want to consider living without.


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