How long will the clock tick for TikTok?

Across the world, there have been concerns raised over security and transparency of Chinese apps like TikTok.

 |  5-minute read |   22-06-2020
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The last few weeks have been quite eventful for the popular social media app TikTok owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Across the world, there have been concerns raised over security and transparency of the app. But they have been more vociferous in India and the United States — two of its biggest markets in terms of downloads. As per available data, TikTok was the most downloaded non-game app worldwide in May 2020, with more than 111.9 million installs. India topped the list with 20 per cent of those installs, followed by the United States at 9.3 per cent. In April, TikTok was the second most installed non-game app worldwide with more than 107 million installs, out of which India’s share was 22 per cent followed by the US at 9.4 per cent.

main_tiktok_reuters_062220012713.jpgPlatforms with Chinese ownerships cannot be left to the hands of its owners or even the members when depravity, societal concerns, public order and security concerns are growing every day. (Photo: Reuters)

Clearly this popular app has a wide following among the young generation in both these countries due to its easy and simple appeal and a light-hearted feel. Even efforts to discipline it, based on some of the complaints including those of violation of child protection laws and the resulting penalty of USD 5.7 million last year by the US Federal Trade Commission didn’t wane its popularity.

Even in India, the dastardly posting of a video glorifying acid attack on women last month generated outrage and a police complaint was filed, resulting in the video being pulled down. Besides this and similar concerns, nationalistic sentiments around the Chinese mess-up of the Covid-19 situation and the border incursions in Ladakh have also not been able to reduce its installs and usage for uploading video clips. An app made in India, ‘Mitron’ almost similar to TikTok in its functional capability hasn’t been able to replace the Chinese counterpart. In a similar nationalistic sentiment, an app "Remove China Apps" capable of helping identify apps made by Chinese developers was developed and launched in mid-May this year by an Indian company, which had more than four million installs in two weeks. However, it was later taken down by Google Play Store as it violated its policies.

The fact remains that such platforms with Chinese ownerships cannot be left to the hands of its owners or even the members when depravity, societal concerns, public order and security concerns are growing every day. Now that the shrills for banning Chinese apps has risen further in India after the killing, injuring and kidnapping of Indian soldiers by the Chinese in Galwan Valley, it is pertinent to see what can actually be done on the ground.

The action will be premised under two considerations — platform-related issues and content flowing through the platform. In either situation, defining the legal edifice will be the Information Technology Act 2008 (IT Act). An app like TikTok would be defined as an intermediary under Section 79 of the IT Act and the accompanying rules notified in April 2011 and it wouldn’t be liable, provided it was not involved in the inception, transmission and reception of any content via its platform.

If the intermediary is notified by law enforcement and judicial authorities, then they have to take the content down and upon non-compliance, action, including banning the app, can be taken by the government.

Further, if anyone has complained to the platform about any particular content, it is bound to respond to that person within 36 hours. The response could also include taking that content down. The government could also block the platform under Section 69A of the act as per the provisions defined in the IT Rules gazetted on October 27, 2009.

The fact remains that blocking of such content can only be done under very clearly defined situations and the nature of content that flows through TikTok might not necessarily entail that. Blocking or public access to content is possible only ‘in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above’. Thus, blocking can happen more from a sovereignty and integrity issue, rather than the content flow of TikTok users.

Even in the US, the concerns are mainly on national security risks around TikTok and other Chinese-owned platforms. As recently as this week, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Tom Cotton have asked the US intelligence Chief to assess whether TikTok poses national security risks in the context of the Chinese laws requiring their companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. These fears are also echoed by many other countries in Europe and in Australia, and there is growing opposition to not only Chinese platforms but also to the entry of Chinese telecom companies to 5G network projects.

All of this also indicates a trend to the larger issue of where technological progress is leading. Both, India and the US have been the most vocal supporters of free and open internet and cyberspace compared to the Chinese strategy and tactics of online surveillance, backdoor traps and content blocking. Evaluating digital footprints and its monitoring is almost being forced on these nations due to the surreptitious nature of the Chinese digital ecosystem. It will be essential to strike a balance so that consumer interests and security considerations are both factored in, and the free nature of the internet is not vitiated. For now, the clock ticks for TikTok.

Also Read | Ticking Again: TikTok was banned in India for three weeks. Here’s what happened in those 21 days


Subimal Bhattacharjee Subimal Bhattacharjee @subimal

The author is is a globally recognised commentator on cyberspace issues and former country head of General Dynamics.

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