TikTok: US explores, India's ban continues
The US is working towards taking advantage of TikTok’s popularity but the Indian government is still continuing its ban on the app that has been a platform where many young talents mushroomed.
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Just after a month after India banned the popular mobile short videos app TikTok, along with other 58 Chinese apps on June 29, 2020, citing national security and privacy concerns, US President Donald Trump has said, “We may be banning TikTok. We may be doing some other things. There are a couple of options, but a lot of things are happening. So we’ll see what happens.” A similar message came from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a week after India’s ban. However, nothing actually happened.
So while all the speculation have continued on the ban by the US or many other countries, the reality is something different. India remains the only major country that has banned the app, while it flourishes in 150 countries in 50 languages. What is happening is that US tech giant Microsoft has confirmed its negotiations to buy TikTok. The Trump administration supports the plan to get TikTok’s Chinese owners ByteDance to divest itself out of TikTok and has given a deadline of September 15 to complete the deal. Many reputed institutional venture funds with strong US presence, like Fidelity, Sequoia, Goldman Sachs, General Atlantic and KKR are invested in TikTok, as also the Japanese Softbank. They definitely do a very strong due diligence while investing in a venture involving the Chinese. Likewise, the board of ByteDance has a few reputed foreigners including Americans. Kevin Mayer who leads TikTok as the CEO and ByteDance as COO, is an American citizen with more than two decades of work experience with Disney. These are definitely indicators that drive the US to see TikTok or ByteDance more favourably than India does. After all, the app is very popular with the young population, and with 41 per cent of its active users in the 16-24 age bracket, nobody would want to lose out on that target group in this era of social media profligacy.
TikTok is very popular with the young population, and 41 per cent of its active users are in the 16-24 age bracket. (Photo: Reuters)
Interestingly, the US is working towards taking advantage of TikTok’s popularity and take the app out of its Chinese founders’ hands. However, in India, the government is still continuing its ban on the app, which has been a platform where many young talents mushroomed from many corners with those one-minute musical or humour clips. Many now have a source of earning from other channels because their talent was discovered on TikTok clips. Many Indian apps have cropped up with features resembling that of TikTok. However, they are still far away from such ease and popularity. In the US too, there have been attempts by tech giants to take on TikTok. Currently, Reels by Facebook under Instagram, or its earlier failed attempt — Lasso — have still not been able to dislodge TikTok in its popularity.
In a letter to the US Congress on July 29 — as the House Judiciary sub-committee was hearing tech giants’ market power — TikTok had made it clear that it stored Americans’ user data in the US with a backup in Singapore under strict access controls. It also assured that it never provided any US user data to the Chinese government, and nor would it ever do so.
A similar statement was issued by the Indian head of TikTok on June 30, after the ban. He clarified that “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under the Indian law and have not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government. Further, if we are requested to in the future we would not do so”.
Since then, nothing has been heard except that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) in India had sent a notice and a list of 79 questions to the banned apps, whose response had to come by July 22 this year. The notice had a veiled threat: if no response came by that date, TikTok and the other apps which have been banned for the while will be permanently prohibited in the country. Of course, a few more cloned websites of these earlier-banned ones were also banned on July 27. It is prudent for the government to come up with a clear answer on what is actually happening. Not that the Indian government has no unfounded concerns around TikTok, but as their CEO and also their India head has come clear that users’ data is not being sent to the Chinese government nor will be sent, then what remains a concern? Obviously, digital space and its management demand a lot of transparency and if TikTok has clarified its ‘algorithms, moderation policies and data flow’ to the government and its regulators, it should be known to the Indian users, by and large, about the government’s position on those answers.
In this cyber age, we cannot remain hidden behind our past ignominy of License Raj-delays and hiccups.
Meanwhile, on July 9, TikTok published its transparency report for the July-December 2019 period, in which it states that it received a total of 302 requests from India, and 291 out of them were legal requests, and that it complied with 90 per cent of the requests. In comparison, there were 100 requests from the US, out of which 78 were legal requests and 82 per cent were complied with. Also, for violating content policies, 16 million videos from Indian users were removed, which was the highest, followed by the US. 4.5 million videos by American users were removed.
The fact remains that business prudence has ensured that ByteDance and TikTok follow practices that conform to cyber behaviour. If there is any doubt, they should be raised and clear answers should be sought with demonstrable proof. In India’s case, one answer that has to be confirmed is that the content from Indian users in the 14 languages that they are available in, are stored in localised servers. Some questions have already cropped up on whether all the security concerns go away if TikTok is ultimately acquired by a US company, and it will be back in action in India. It is time that policymaking around digital issues became more transparent, generic and defined, and not subjected to kneejerk reactions or even subjective considerations.