The Indian government is backing a homegrown alternative because Twitter won’t bend to its will

Newbie in town.
Newbie in town.
Image: Screenshot/ google play
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This post has been updated. 

A little-known locally made microblogging website seems to have become all the rage with Indian ministers and government officials overnight.

On Feb. 9, a host of prominent Indian officials endorsed Koo, a made-in-India alternative to Twitter. While some simply shared links to follow them on Koo, others asked their Twitter followers to join the app to get “exclusive” updates about their ministries’ work.

Several ministries and departments have created accounts on Koo. These include the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY), Central Board of Indirect Taxes (CBIC), National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT), India Post, MyGovIndia, and Digital India among others.

A screenshot of India’s IT ministry’s account on Koo.
A screenshot of India’s IT ministry’s account on Koo.
Image: Screenshot/koo

The overnight fondness for Koo comes just a day after Twitter sought formal dialogue with the Narendra Modi government, which had asked the social media platform to block certain accounts related to farmers’ protest. On Feb. 10, a day after Indian ministers endorsed Koo, Twitter said it had blocked around 500 accounts linked to farmer protests while adding that the values that underpin the open internet and free expression “are increasingly under threat around the world.”

What is Koo?

Developed by serial entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka, Koo describes itself as an app “built for Indians to share their views in their mother tongue and have meaningful discussions.” Radhakrishna had earlier founded a Uber-rival TaxiForSure, which was acquired by local competitor Ola in 2015 and Bidawatka was part of the founding team of redBus, a bus ticketing portal that was bought by Ibibo in 2013.

The duo launched Koo in March 2020 and the app so far has over a million active users.

The app is available in four Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada—and plans to add Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bangla, Oriya, Malayalam, and Assamese soon. Most features of Koo are more or less like Twitter. For instance, users can share text messages using up to 400 characters, or share one-minute videos on Koo. The app is available for download on both Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

The app’s affiliation with the Narendra Modi government is not new. On Feb. 2, the app partnered with Mann Ki Baat, a radio programme hosted by prime minister Modi. Last year in August, the app also won the AatmaNirbhar App Innovation Challenge held by the government to promote Modi’s initiative of making India self-reliant.

Earlier this month, Koo received a funding of $4.1 million (Rs30 crore)from a clutch of investors, including an entity backed by  Mohandas Pai, former Infosys top executive. The company’s other investors include Accel Partners, Kalaari Capital, Blume Ventures, and Dream Incubator.

Koo is also not the first Indian alternative to Twitter. Several local entrepreneurs have tried to build replicas of the American microblogging platform to tap into its large userbase. India is Twitter’s third-largest market with 18.9 million users. For instance, last year, an app called Tooter had garnered a lot of attention amid the rising “self-reliant” sentiment in India.

These apps, however, have not managed to dent Twitter’s presence in India so far, mainly because of the historic privacy concerns around Indian apps.

Is Koo app safe?

The “made in India” tag might be helping Koo grab eyeballs, but it is also something that makes potential users sceptical.

After all, several Indian apps that shot to overnight privacy aided by the government’s moves, have in the past failed to impress users. For example, after the Modi government banned TikTok in India last year, apps like ChingariMitron, and Hipi had their moment in the sun, but their popularity was short-lived as they struggled with crashing servers and poor user privacy.

In fact, the Indian government itself has a pretty shoddy track record with building and running apps and websites. For instance, India’s official Covid-19 tracing app, Aarogya Setu, was surrounded by controversies after many claimed that it’s vulnerable to data breaches. Similarly, Aadhaar, the world’s largest database of demographic and biometric data, has been subject to major security threats in the past.

Koo claims to take users’ privacy seriously. As per its website, Koo stores user information only to the extent that is required for it to provide them with the services.