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Indian Loan Apps on Google Play Store Charging High Interest on Short-Term Loans in Policy Violation

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 January 2021

At least 10 Indian lending apps on Google’s Play Store, which have been downloaded millions of times, breached Google rules on loan repayment lengths aimed at protecting vulnerable borrowers, according to a Reuters review of such services and more than a dozen users.

Four apps were taken down from the Play Store – where the vast majority of Indians download phone apps – after Reuters flagged to Google that they were violating its ban on offering personal loans requiring full repayment in 60 days or less.

Three of these apps – 10MinuteLoan, Ex-Money, and Extra Mudra – didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment.

The fourth app, StuCred, was allowed back on the Google Play store on January 7 after it removed the offer of a 30-day loan. It denied engaging in any unscrupulous practices.

At least six other apps remain available at the store that offer loan repayment lengths, or tenures, some as low as seven days, according to 15 borrowers and screenshots of loan details from all six apps shared with Reuters.

Some of these apps apply steep processing fees, as high as Rs. 2,000 on loans of less than Rs. 10,000 with tenures of 30 days or under, according to the 15 borrowers. Together with other charges including one-off registration costs, borrowers can pay, in real terms, interest rates as high as 60 percent per week, their loan details show.

By comparison, Indian banks typically offer personal loans with annual interest rates of 10-20 percent, and they usually do not have to be repaid in full for at least a year.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the banking regulator, did not respond to a request for comment about whether it planned to step up supervisory action. In December it issued a public notice about lending apps, warning some engaged in “unscrupulous activities”, such as charging excessive interest rates and fees.

Google, which dominates India’s app market with over 98 percent of smartphones using its Android platform, said its policies were “continuously updated in response to new and emerging threats and bad actors”.

“We take action on apps that are flagged to us by users and regulatory bodies,” it added.

When contacted by Reuters, the apps offering short tenures either denied wrongdoing or did not respond.

The apps, many of which act as intermediaries connecting borrowers and lending institutions, are not breaking the law as the RBI has no rules covering minimum loan tenures. The RBI also does not oversee intermediaries.

The Indian finance ministry and information technology ministry did not respond to requests for comments on whether they planned to increase scrutiny of these apps.

Some consumer campaigners say short-term, or payday, loans can lead to borrowers defaulting and running up spiralling costs.

“Predatory loan apps with high processing fees, short tenures and steep penalty charges on default are leading people into a debt trap,” said Pravin Kalaiselvan, who heads a digital rights group, Save Them India Foundation.

Google introduced its own global policy for its platform in 2019 “to protect users from harmful or deceitful practices”.

The rise of smartphones and affordable mobile Internet in India has seen a proliferation of hundreds of personal lending apps in recent years. Campaign groups say rapid advances in technology have outpaced authorities and are calling for regulations to be introduced regarding loan tenures and fees.

“There are no clear norms on lending apps in India. Right now they fall in a grey zone,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and editor of MediaNama, a Delhi-based publication on technology policy.

‘Unilaterally decided’

The four apps found to have breached Google’s repayment length policy – 10MinuteLoan, Ex-Money, StuCred, and Extra Mudra – were advertising loan tenures of 30 days on their apps and had been downloaded a total of at least 1.5 million times.

Reuters flagged those apps to Google on December 18 and they were taken down from the Play Store in India within four days.

In response to a Reuters query about whether it had offered loans that required full repayment in 60 days or less, StuCred said: “Google has unilaterally decided that fintech apps cannot be on their apps store which have repayments under 30 days, even though no law relating to the same has been passed that would require such action on their (Google’s) part.”

Several other apps say on their Play Store listings that the minimum repayment length they offer is over three months, but in reality their tenures often range between seven and 15 days, according to the 15 borrowers and their screenshots.

Those apps include CashBean, Moneed, iCredit, CashKey, RupeeFly, and RupeePlus, which have been downloaded a total of nearly 12 million times.

Moneed said it adhered to RBI rules and that any company that did not do so should not be allowed to do business. In response to a Reuters query about whether it had offered loans that required full repayment in 60 days or less, it said: “We support 90 days repayment for the loan cycle.”

CashBean also said it followed RBI guidelines. “Our customer-care lines are open for all our borrowers at all times,” it added. It did not directly address a question on whether it offered loan tenures of 60 days or less.

CashKey, iCredit, RupeeFly and RupeePlus did not respond to emails seeking comment and were not reachable by phone.

Harassment investigations

The lending app industry has separately attracted the scrutiny of police who say they are investigating dozens of apps following the suicides of at least two borrowers in the past month after they and their families were allegedly harassed by debt-recovery agents.

The police haven’t disclosed the identities of the those under investigation.

Debt-recovery harassment is prohibited under RBI rules which say collection agents cannot harass borrowers by “persistently bothering” them, or by contacting their family or acquaintances.

The Reuters review of 50 popular lending apps available on Google Play found that nearly all of them require borrowers to give them permission to access their phone contacts.

Mahesh Dommati, a 28-year-old tech worker in Hyderabad who lost his job during the COVID-19 lockdown, was unable to repay the Rs. 6,000 loan he had taken out from an app called Slice. He said recovery agents used his contact list to repeatedly call his family and friends, demanding they pay on his behalf.

Slice said it abided by RBI rules and did not engage in harassment.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Parler Loses Bid to Require Amazon to Restore Service Following US Capital Violence

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 January 2021

A US judge on Thursday rejected Parler’s demand that Amazon restore web hosting services for the social media platform, which Amazon had cut off following the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.

US District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle said Parler was unlikely to prove Amazon breached its contract or violated antitrust law by suspending service on January 10, and that it was “not a close call.”

She also forcefully rejected the suggestion that the public interest would be served by a preliminary injunction requiring Amazon Web Services to “host the kind of abusive, violent content at issue in this case, particularly in light of the recent riots at the US Capitol.”

“That event,” she added, “was a tragic reminder that inflammatory rhetoric can – more swiftly and easily than many of us would have hoped – turn a lawful protest into a violent insurrection.”

Parler was not immediately available for comment.

“We welcome the court’s careful ruling,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. “This was not a case about free speech. It was about a customer that consistently violated our terms of service.”

Amazon said Parler ignored repeated warnings to effectively moderate the growth on its website of violent content, which included calls to assassinate prominent Democratic politicians, leading business executives and members of the media.

Researchers have said far-right groups at the Capitol had a vigorous online presence on platforms including Parler, where they spread violent rhetoric.

Parler said there was no evidence apart from anecdotes in the press that it had a role in inciting the riots, and that it was unfair to deprive millions of law-abiding Americans a platform for free speech.

It also said Amazon had no right to threaten its “extinction” by pulling the plug, and had been motivated by “political animus” to benefit Twitter, a larger Amazon client that Parler said did not censor violent content targeting conservatives.

Rothstein rejected that argument, saying Parler had merely raised the “specter of preferential treatment” for Twitter.

Many supporters of former US President Donald Trump favor Parler, which has claimed it had more than 12 million users.

Parler remains largely offline after being dropped by Seattle-based Amazon and the app stores of Apple and Alphabet’s Google following the Washington unrest.

Those companies also cited Parler’s record of policing violent content.

Parler Chief Executive Officer John Matze told Reuters on January 13 that Parler may be offline for good, but later pledged it would return stronger.

Matze and his family were forced to “go into hiding” after receiving death threats, his lawyer said on January 15.

A static version of Parler’s website recently returned, including a notice saying Parler was having technical difficulties, and a handful of posts from people like Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick said on Tuesday that Parler was posting comments on behalf of “friends who reached out.”

The site’s Internet protocol address is owned by DDos-Guard, which is controlled by two Russian men and provides protection from distributed denial-of-service attacks, according to infrastructure expert Ronald Guilmette.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Twitter Locks China’s US Embassy Account Over Xinjiang Policy-Related Tweet

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By Reuters | Updated: 21 January 2021

Twitter has locked the account of China’s US embassy for a tweet that defended China’s policies in the Xinjiang region, which the US social media platform said violated the firm’s policy against “dehumanisation”.

The Chinese Embassy account, @ChineseEmbinUS, posted a tweet this month that said that Uighur women were no longer “baby making machines,” citing a study reported by state-backed newspaper China Daily.

The tweet was removed by Twitter and replaced by a label stating that it was no longer available. Although Twitter hides tweets that violate its policies, it requires account owners to manually delete such posts. The Chinese embassy’s account has not posted any new tweets since January 9.

Twitter’s suspension of the embassy’s account came a day after the Trump administration, in its final hours, accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang, a finding endorsed by the incoming Biden administration.

The Biden administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Twitter’s move.

“We’ve taken action on the Tweet you referenced for violating our policy against dehumanisation, where it states: We prohibit the dehumanisation of a group of people based on their religion, caste, age, disability, serious disease, national origin, race, or ethnicity,” a Twitter spokesperson said on Thursday.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a e-mailed request for comment. Twitter is blocked in China but is an increasingly favoured platform by China’s diplomats and state media.

China has repeatedly rejected accusations of abuse in its Xinjiang region, where a United Nations panel has said at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims had been detained in camps.

Last year, a report by German researcher Adrian Zenz published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think tank accused China of using forced sterilisation, forced abortion and coercive family planning against minority Muslims. The Chinese foreign ministry said the allegations were groundless and false.

Twitter’s move also follows the removal of the account of former US president Donald Trump, which had 88 million followers, citing the risk of violence after his supporters stormed the US Capitol this month.

Twitter had locked Trump’s account, asking for deletion of some tweets, before restoring it and then removing it altogether after the former president violated the platform’s policies again.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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DC to Relaunch Mobile App as DC Universe Infinite on January 21 With Focus on Comics

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By ANI | Updated: 20 January 2021

DC is all set to shake up its comics app on January 21 and will be relaunching it as DC Universe Infinite.

According to The Verge, the original DC Universe featured television shows and comics, but now that DC shows have moved to HBO Max, the company has decided to refocus the app on comics and the ”fan community,” while keeping the same USD 7.99 (roughly Rs. 580)-a-month price.

DC Universe Infinite will have DC’s catalogue and early access to comics six months after they are released physically in stores.

The company said that the comic reader in its app has been improved, and users will have more options to curate custom lists of titles.

The app will also have a customisable icon and a widget for iOS 14 so that users can get back into whatever they were reading faster.

As per The Verge, in terms of features, DC Universe Infinite is most similar to Marvel Unlimited, which is Marvel’s USD 9.99 (roughly Rs. 730)-a-month take on an exclusive comics service.

Infinite undercuts Marvel by keeping its cost at USD 7.99 (roughly Rs. 580) a month or USD 74.99 (roughly Rs. 5,500) a year , and it might help to make it popular as WarnerMedia rolls out its plans for the DC universe(s) in film and TV.

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Dunzo Raises $40 Million in Funds From Google, More Investors as It Rides Pandemic-Induced Surge

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By Reuters | Updated: 20 January 2021

Dunzo has raised $40 million (roughly Rs. 290 crores) from existing investor Google and others after seeing a surge in usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many Indians stayed indoors for much of 2020 because of the health crisis, Dunzo and food-delivery apps Zomato and Swiggy recorded a fresh surge in popularity. Naspers-backed Swiggy also runs a hyperlocal courier service.

“This capital stems from a year of robust growth amidst the pandemic,” Dunzo said in a statement. “As cities reopen, (Dunzo) continues to see strong growth across user segments.”

Besides Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada, and Alteria also participated in the fundraising round, the Bengaluru-based company added.

Dunzo allows users to order groceries and other essential items from nearby stores as well as run pick-up and drop errands within the eight cities it operates in.

“As merchants go digital, Dunzo is helping small businesses in their digital transformation journey,” said Caesar Sengupta, vice president at Google, which has set aside $10 billion (roughly Rs. 73,100 crores) for digital investments in India over five to seven years.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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TikTok Parent ByteDance Launches Douyin Pay Mobile Payment Service in China

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By Reuters | Updated: 19 January 2021

Beijing-based ByteDance launched on Tuesday its third-party payment service for the Chinese version of its hit short video app TikTok, “Douyin Pay”, as it presses to expand into the e-commerce business in China.

“The set-up of Douyin Pay is to supplement the existing major payment options, and to ultimately enhance user experience on Douyin,” Douyin said in a statement.

Users of Douyin, which accumulated 600 million daily active users, previously could use Ant Group’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay, the country’s two ubiquitous third-party mobile payment channels, to buy virtual gifts for livestreamers or items from shops on the platform.

ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming built up the company’s payment capability in China by acquiring Wuhan Hezhong Yibao Technology last year. Hezhong Yibao obtained a third-party payment license from the central bank in 2014.

ByteDance has been ordered by the outgoing Trump administration to divest TikTok’s US assets on national security concerns.

The company, which denies the allegation, has been in talks for months with Walmart and Oracle to shift such assets into a new entity.

Douyin is the main revenue generator for ByteDance. It provides a glimpse of what TikTok could eventually become, as Douyin started selling merchandise in 2017 and now operates a growing e-commerce operation where hundreds of millions of users shop on a daily basis.

ByteDance’s expansion comes as China’s financial regulators are tightening oversight over financial technology firms, particularly companies such as Ant Group.

China’s third-party payment sector is dominated by Alipay and WeChat Pay, with the former taking 55.39 percent of the total market in the second quarter of last year, according to market researcher Analysys. Other players include JD.com’s JD Pay, Baidu Wallet, and Meituan Pay.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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WhatsApp May Retain Only 18 Percent Users Amid Privacy Row: Survey

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By ANI | Updated: 19 January 2021

A recent survey has revealed that only 18 per cent of users may continue using WhatsApp in India while 36 per cent will reduce their usage drastically. Also, 15 per cent of users are likely to stop using the app completely, amid the ongoing privacy row.

WhatsApp has been receiving a lot of flak lately over its new privacy policy and users have been flocking from WhatsApp to other alternative apps like Signal and Telegram.

According to Mashable, the survey received over 24,000 responses from WhatsApp users based in 244 districts of India. 24 percent of users said they (along with their groups) are considering a switch to other instant messaging platforms, while 91 percent of WhatsApp users said that they will not use its payment features.

This action is over the concerns that WhatsApp will share payment and transaction-related data with its parent company Facebook and other third parties.

However, WhatsApp has now extended the deadline of its updated privacy policy to May 15 from its original date which was in February. In the new terms of services, WhatsApp had asked users to agree to allow Facebook and its subsidiaries to collect user data such as including phone numbers, location, etc.

As per Mashable, Signal and Telegram had 24,000 and 1.3 million downloads respectively between January 1 and January 5, leading to growth by 9,483 per cent in the case of Signal and growth by 15 per cent in the case of Telegram. WhatsApp, on the other hand, has witnessed a massive drop in its downloads by 35 per cent over January 6 to January 10.

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