Source: ET Bureau
On leading social media platforms, there has been a sustained push or campaign to uninstall a wide range of Chinese utility and communication apps, but none is under more scrutiny than the ByteDance-owned TikTok.
Over the last week, as the hostilities between India and China have intensified at LAC, short video content app TikTok has borne the online brunt of anger from Indian internet users, becoming the face of India’s growing concerns about China and its hold on India’s technology spaces. On leading social media platforms, there has been a sustained push or campaign to uninstall a wide range of Chinese utility and communication apps, but none is under more scrutiny than the ByteDance-owned TikTok.
The upping of ante against TikTok (and by extension ByteDance’s India-focused app Helo) started earlier — in part because of the Chinese origins of the pandemic in Wuhan. A general sentiment that has built up not just in India, but globally. The tipping point, however, came in May, when a “war” broke out between a popular TikTok and YouTube creators over their respective popularities, or quality of content, and seizing the moment, some influential members of India’s digital right-wing joined in. This led to nationalist developers building apps, albeit briefly, which removed Chinese apps, including TikTok, from devices.
Other concerns followed, with several videos flagging animal abuse or its allowing of alleged anti-India content among other things, including concerns over data being shipped to China and censorship. This is important, as a report in a China-focused technology magazine PingWest revealed in early June that ByteDance was cutting its Chinese engineers’ access to TikTok and other overseas products. This was the latest in a series of efforts that the company is undertaking to “erect administrative and technical firewalls” between China and its global operations.
The development, if true, also comes at a time when the company hired former Disney senior executive Kevin Mayer as TikTok’s CEO and ByteDance’s COO. In short, ByteDance is attempting a makeover, considering concerns expressed by US regulators, legislators and users around issues of national security and its $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly in late 2017.
The firewall move is also important as part of ByteDance’s push to convince US users that Chinese censors can’t access content considered to be sensitive to China (Dalai Lama, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc). In September last year, the Guardian published a report using leaked documents that revealed how TikTok censored videos that did not please Beijing. A Washington Post report in November seemed to confirm the earlier report, with ex-employees of the short video site telling the paper that Chinese workers had the final call on flagged videos.
In India, TikTok has come under intense scrutiny in its short, three-year-old existence. Last year, for instance, as ET reported, it told the IT Ministry that it did not “pay creators to create content, nor does it interfere or control the creation of content on the platform”. In the very next line, though, it said that it engaged with “certain users who can promote the platform and teach others on how to generate the most value of the tools available on the platform.” This was inherently contradictory, as ET reported, scouring through multiple contracts where TikTok (and its earlier avatar of Musical.ly) did in fact pay creators through virtual currencies like “diamonds” which could be redeemed later.
At the time, ByteDance defended these as “standard marketing practices”, and that it does not “represent a manifestation of editorial control”, a key element of India’s safe harbour rules for technology platforms, and that it was merely a “passive house or an enabler.”
In July last year, several members of parliament — from leading national and regional parties — had raised concerns on the floor of the Lok Sabha ranging from national security to transfer of data to China, ByteDance’s close relationship with the Chinese government, to its role in “endangering the democratic processes”. This followed a brief, six-day ban where TikTok was banned in India in April 2019 by the Madras High Court, in response to a petition that alleged that TikTok was spreading pornography while also potentially “exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting the mental health of its users”.
TikTok, however, refutes these charges of data transfer to China. In previous statements to ET, the company has stated that “Indian user data is stored at industry-leading third-party data centres,” while also maintaining that, “TikTok does not operate in the People’s Republic of China, and their government has no access to TikTok user data, nor does it have a relationship with China Telecom.”