It rarely happens that a government so obviously promotes a mobile application (app), but given the different times we live in, the Narendra Modi government, at least via some of its functionaries and supporters, is promoting Koo. As an alternative to Twitter that perhaps believed it could do to Modi what it got away doing to ex-US President Donald Trump.
With several ministers and departments of the union government flocking to the Koo App — a start-up made by a Bengaluru-based firm led by Aprameya Radhakrishna of TaxiforSure app and Vokal platform — India has thrown a formidable challenge to Twitter with growth figures in the past 10 months since its launch far surpassing those that the American medium could accomplish in more than a decade in India.
Koo heads and investors
Radhakrishna collaborated with another entrepreneur Mayank Bidwatka in the company Bombinate Technologies Pvt Ltd, with funds from investors of Series A in 2018 from a Blume Ventures, Kalaari Capital and Accel Partners India among others, says Crunchbase.
In the latest round, former Infosys CFO TV Mohandas Pai’s 3one4 Capital joined the list of investors, Bombinate Technologies announced last month.
Early accomplishments of Koo
the team above launched the app in early 2020 and won the union government’s Atmanirbhar App Innovation Challenge along with other India-made apps like Zoho and Chingari (Indian version of TikTok). This happened more or less around the time that the Modi government banned 59 China-linked apps including, most famously, TikTok.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat address mentioned Koo following the outcome of the Atmanirbhar App Innovation Challenge, 2020.
Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Law & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Members of Parliament Tejasvi Surya and Shobha Karandlaje, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, Isha Foundation’s Jaggi Vasudev, former cricketers Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble are among the politicians, ministers and celebrities to have joined the app.
“I am now on Koo. Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates. Let us exchange our thoughts and ideas on Koo,” minister Piyush Goyal said on Twitter recently.
To top it all, the Union Ministry of IT, India Post and the Niti Aayog are some of the government departments to have an account on the app.
Koo, a coup of sorts
The beeline big shots are making to Koo is halfway the Chinese approach. China refuses to have any business with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc, much as these companies bend over backwards to please the CCP in Beijing, hoping against hope Xi Jinping would let them sink their teeth into the huge Chinese market. The Modi regime has not banned any social networking site it does not like but can’t do without. Rather, it has made it clear they must function in the Indian territory only on terms of the Government of India.
Earlier, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had accepted the proposal of a virtual meeting with Twitter officials to discuss censorship by the social networking site that the Narendra Modi government feels muzzles free speech and, more urgently, Twitter’s tolerance for people who the government says have evil designs to disturb the law-and-order situation in different parts of the country. Ajay Sawhney, Secretary Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) will be meeting Twitter officials.
While Union Minister for Law and Justice, Electronics and Information Technology and Communications Ravi Shankar Prasad had in 2020 communicated to Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg the government’s displeasure over the site’s censorship standards, Twitter, sources said, earned the regime’s ire when it suspended the handle of Union Home Minister Amit Shah last year. Sources said Twitter’s high-handedness in dealing with ex-US President Donald Trump’s account rang alarm bells in the government that feels the American company could, if push comes to shove, try to influence politics in general and elections in particular in India.
In a no-nonsense message to Twitter, therefore, the IT Ministry told the American company it was an intermediary and that they were “obliged to obey the directions of the government. Refusal to do so will invite penal action”. The government told the company that non-conformity could lead also to action being taken under Section 69A (3) of the IT Act. This simply implies that senior officials of Twitter would be incarcerated for up to seven years while the company will have to shell out massive penalty.
But is Koo compromised by a Chinese connection?
Soon after French cybersecurity researcher Robert Baptiste, popularly known as Elliott Anderson on Twitter, unearthed that there was a Chinese investor who had put his money in the company that runs the Atmanirbhar app, adding that it was leaking sensitive user information like their email ID, phone numbers and date of birth, Bombinate Technologies Pvt Ltd said, first, that the small stake of the Chinese firm Shunwei among the investors was going to be bought up by Indian investors.
Exposing the Chinese connection to the Koo app, Baptiste and others had noted that Shunwei, connected to Xiaomi, was a venture capital fund, which invested in start-ups. Others alleged that a previous owner of the domain sold illegal drugs. However, given that Koo wants to be wholly ‘atmanirbhar‘, its makers say that Shunwei would exit, selling its already negligible shares soon.
The Koo co-founder on 10 February tweeted, “Koo is an India registered company with Indian founders. Raised earlier capital 2.5 years ago. The latest funds for Bombinate Technologies are led by a truly Indian investor 3one4 capital. Shunwei (single-digit shareholder) which had invested in our Vokal journey will be exiting fully.”
Venture capitalist firm Shunwei, Bombinate Technologies said, was an investor with a single-digit percentage investment. This domain was originally created about four years ago with a different set of owners (a common practice in the IT sector). Now, the Chinese venture capitalist with his minuscule stakes is leaving and it’s going to be a 100% Indian company, the makers of Koo clarified.
Bombinate Technologies Private Limited bought the domain in late 2019.
But Baptiste was not the only person complaining or going “Gotcha!” Another user tweeted, “It’s storing user tokens as frontend global variables if you know the token info of a user. go to /create you can directly put values in here, with inspecting mode which I think will enable the compose button and you can remotely tweet to that account with the token info.”
Addressing this concern, Radhakrishna spoke to potential users in a webinar where he said that the venture was still in a fledgeling state and that these bugs would soon be all cleared.
Finally, Koo does not have a verified Twitter handle. many thought it was @kooappofficioal, but Radhakrishna tweeted last night that the official account of Koo on Twitter was @kooindia. He tweeted, “The official account of #kooapp is @kooindia. Please note.”
By the way, a Twitter search shows that most of the users who joined the chorus with Baptiste, crying foul over Koo’s Chinese connection, are supporters and sympathisers of the INC and other leftist political parties. Of course, a section of the right-wing — referred to often pejoratively as the “raita wing” — walked straight into the trap, as was expected of them.