Why The Indian’s Government Ban of TikTok is More Significant Than You May Think
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Earlier this week the Indian government announced it was banning 59 apps developed by Chinese companies, including the ever-so-popular social media app, TikTok. The Indian government stated that the banned apps were engaging in activities that threatened “national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.” This development is significant to show the increasing interaction between social media and politics; with India being one of the most vital regions to the online world, this story may have important ramifications for social media. Here’s the backstory why…
ByteDance, Musical.ly and the Importance of 2017
In 2017 ByteDance, a Beijing-based company, bought Musical.ly, a karaoke app popular among teenagers (notably popular in the U.S), for $800 million to $1 billion.
ByteDance is a company with a range of products under its umbrella. It started with Toutiao, a news aggregator, which uniquely blends a search engine and social media platform to deliver a never-ending personalized stream of content to its 120 million daily active users. ByteDance then launched Douyin in 2016, which allows users to create and share 15-second videos —essentially, the Chinese version of TikTok. The company also has an app called Zigua Video, one of China’s most popular video platforms for video creators, Helo, one of India’s leading social media platforms, Lark, a collaboration tool (available in Japan and Singapore), and Babe, Indonesia’s leading news and content app. In July 2019, ByteDance claimed its apps had an incredible 1.5 billion monthly active users. These apps are all powered by ByteDance AI Lab (founded in 2016), whose “main research focus has been the development of innovative technologies that serve the purposes of ByteDance’s content platforms.” With every profile, swipe, like, comment, view, tap, and more, the algorithms continue to refine themselves (deemed “the virtuous cycle of A.I.”). ByteDance’s Vice President has said that they’re able to process 50 million GB of data every day and given ByteDance’s incredibly robust dataset (the interactions and content on their apps), these algorithms have become some of the best in the world. As any TikTok user can tell you, the app serves up incredibly addicting content; the ability to do so is powered by the extraordinary algorithms behind the app.
Back to the story…
So ByteDance buys Musical.ly in 2017. Earlier that year China passed its National Intelligence Law, which contains language that requires Chinese companies to comply with intelligence gathering operations, if asked. Article 16 states that intelligence officials “may enter relevant restricted areas and venues; may learn from and question relevant institutions, organisations, and individuals; and may read or collect relevant files, materials or items.” This means that the Chinese government can essentially collect all data from ByteDance if they desired. Data from all 1.5 billion plus people. This is where India’s ban comes into play.
India’s Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology said that the Chinese apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”
[I should note that Chinese officials have claimed that companies should comply with local laws while abroad.]
The Significance of India to TikTok
India has played a crucial role in the explosive growth of TikTok. In 2019, India was the top market for TikTok downloads (not including Chinese Android downloads) with 323 million downloads in total (accounting for 44% of the total figure). Of the 2 BILLION cumulative downloads the app has garnered, it’s estimated that 30.3% of all unique downloads have come from India. TikTok has more than 200 million monthly active users in India, with an average user in the country spending 38 minutes daily on the app.
This isn’t the first time the app was banned in India. In April 2019 an Indian court ruled that TikTok could expose children to sexual predators, pornographic content and cyber-bullying and blocked the app for a week (the decision was subsequently reversed). ByteDance claimed in a court filing that the company was losing more than $500,000 in revenue each day that TikTok was banned from the app stores in India.
The Significance of India to the Social Media Landscape
India plays an even more prominent role in the wider social media landscape. India has a population of 1.3 billion, with nearly half of those people online. It’s the leading country in terms of Facebook audience size, second leading on Instagram, eighth on Twitter, and second on Snapchat. As more Indian citizens come online, it will only become a more vital territory for these apps. Not having a presence in the country is a major loss for TikTok.
The Significance of the Indian Ban to the World
More broadly speaking, the TikTok ban in India shows the increasing role of social media in politics.
A couple of weeks ago, TikTok users and KPop fans allegedly registered up to hundreds of thousands of attendees for President Trump’s first rally of his Presidential re-election run without their having the intent to appear. Videos with millions of views instructed viewers to register and not attend.
Earlier in June, KPop fans flooded Twitter during the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. They took over the #WhiteLifeMatters hashtag with fancams (close-up videos of their favorite artist in KPop groups), tweets about music, and more, drowning out racist rhetoric. After the Dallas Police Dept tweeted out asking its citizens to share illegal activity of protests on its app, KPop fans once again flooded the app with fancams. The app eventually had to shut down temporarily.
YouTuber Elijah Daniel, 26, commented on the Trump rally: “K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want.”Users are better understanding the algorithms that power these apps and leveraging them to influence politics and culture.
The TikTok ban in India comes on the heels of a dispute at the border of India in China, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unknown number of Chinese casualties.
TikTok is under scrutiny around the world. In 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. launched a review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, as lawmakers raised concerns that the app (now TikTok) is sending data to China. The US Army has banned soldiers from using the app as it is considered a “cyber threat.” In Europe, authorities are also probing the company’s data-collection methods, as the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) announced last month (June 2020) that it is establishing a task force to investigate TikTok’s processing activities and privacy practices across the European Union. This follows other investigations by the United Kingdom and more recently the Netherlands. Colombia’s commerce regulator is also investigating the app to ensure it complies with laws on the collection and treatment of children’s and adolescents’ personal data.
Since the ban, TikTok has pulled its app from the Google Play and Apple’s App Store and revoked access to existing users in the country. In a post published on TikTok’s blog, Kevin Mayer, CEO of TikTok, stated that “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and places the highest importance on user privacy and integrity.”
It’s yet to be seen if the Indian government will reverse its decision but given TikTok’s large user-base in India and the country’s role as a major battleground in the wider social media world, the ban may have important implications for the future of TikTok, the social media landscape, and the growing influence of social media in the world.
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