Xiaomi is the top selling phone brand in India with around 31 percent market share in the previous quarter, according to various research firms. That means roughly one out of every three smartphones sold in India is a Xiaomi, and the company already has an install base that would in millions. And some of these users have reached out to Gadgets 360, saying that they've experienced some highly inappropriate content on their devices thanks to notifications sent by the Mi Apps app on their Xiaomi smartphone.
Meenakshi Ravikrishnan, a Bengaluru-based teacher, says that she received a notification from the Mi Apps store app which showed a woman in her underwear, leaning over a laptop with the text, "How to download best videos? Click here now!!”.
"I keep getting notifications from this app which are really annoying to start with," says Ravikrishnan. "The next thing I see there's a half naked woman on my screen, and I just felt harassed by my phone."
Asking around, we found a few other users who had seen similar ads. But looking around on the Internet seems to suggest this is not a very widespread problem either. We have Xiaomi smartphone users within Gadgets 360 and the most inappropriate content they reported saying was an ad for Jetpack Joyride India, which ruined a perfectly good game. In all seriousness, we have seen some ads in the notification which seemed designed to titillate, there was nothing which was outright obscene.
To learn more, we reached out to Xiaomi, but the company could not make a spokesperson available to discuss the matter. It confirmed that the push notifications on the Mi App Store are mostly "generic pushes that are not personalised," and that the ads are served by third-party ad networks and not reviewed by Xiaomi India.
In other words, inappropriate ads could be reaching anyone, including kids, and the company says it's not responsible for this. To make things worse for people like Ravikrishnan, you can not uninstall Mi Apps as it is a system application and you also cannot turn off notifications from the app.
Aside from Mi Apps, Xiaomi India is also serving ads to users via the Browser app, and when we met the company's Global Vice President, and Managing Director India, Manu Kumar Jain in Chennai earlier this year, he mentioned ads are now a serious revenue source for Xiaomi India.
If you visit the Newsfeed section of the Browser, you might be subjected to links that are no less offensive than the notifications. When we randomly fired up the Browser, the second story listed (in Hindi) was titled "भाभी जी के इस लुक को देखकर हो जाएंगे दीवाने, तस्वीरें देखें…”. Translated into English that reads "You'll go crazy for this look of sister in-law's, see pictures". Sister in-laws are often fodder for pornographic stories in India - see Savita Bhabhi - and this seems to be coming from a similar place.
By saying that a third-party is serving the advertising, Xiaomi is essentially saying that it has no responsibility in the matter, even though it reaches millions of Indians every single day.
While many Xiaomi users we spoke to had not noticed the offensive content, Shikha Saini, who runs a cafe in Bengaluru, did say that she has seen some obscene ads as well.
"I think our phones are just perverted," Saini says with a laugh, and adds, "it's a pretty minor thing and I don't think most people notice, but yeah, every now and then there will be some ad that's sketchy. But it's mostly for games and stuff like that."
Another Mi user, who did not wish to be quoted as he works in a news publication, shared a slightly different experience.
"It doesn't show up in the notifications," he says, but adds, "but when you run the system cleaner to cleanup wasted space, after that it shows ads and tase are usually very porn-y." We tried this ourselves, but were served an ad for a Kickstarter project raising funds for socks.
This seemingly minor issue is reminiscent of way YouTube's trending section was a problem not too long ago, or, more recently, how the Gboard app suggested equally colourful language if you typed certain Hindi words.
While artificial intelligence and machine learning might be the latest buzzwords, it’s clear that many algorithms are simply looking at what is - or likely to be - popular with a generic audience and are arriving at the lowest common denominator, whether it's for YouTube suggestions, or ads in your notifications, without much consideration for the end-users.