The Indian government has ordered the removal of the hugely popular TikTok video-sharing app from both Google and Apple stores over fears of the spread of pornography and child endangerment. The country’s supreme court rejected an appeal against a lower court ruling by China’s ByteDance, the owner of the app, which has reportedly been downloaded more than 240 million times in India and has more than 120 million monthly active users in the country. For ByteDance, India represents a significant proportion of its claimed 500 million TikTok users globally.
TikTok describes their 15-second video app as “not your ordinary destination for short-form mobile video, it’s raw, real, and without boundaries,” but boundaries when it comes to safeguarding children are there for good reason. The order against ByteDance, which also operates BuzzVideo, Vigo Video and Toutiao, said that the TikTok mobile app contained “degrading culture and encouraging pornography, besides causing pedophiles and explicit disturbing content, social stigma and media health issues between teens.”
The Indian court order referenced similar bans in Bangladesh and Indonesia as TikTok has come under increasing pressure across the region for its apparent inability to control the content distributed over its platform.
TikTok under the spotlight globally
In February, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced that “the operators of the video social networking app Musical.ly [which merged with and is] now known as TikTok, have agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that the company illegally collected personal information from children. This is the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the Commission in a children’s privacy case.” The FTC said that the app had been “collecting and exposing” the locations of young children, as well as failing to delete information on underage children when instructed to do so.
Musical.ly had more than 65 million users in the U.S. when it merged with TikTok. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons at the time.
In the U.K., a BBC investigation reported that “TikTok is failing to suspend the accounts of people sending sexual messages to teenagers and children… Hundreds of sexually explicit comments have been found on videos posted by children as young as nine… While the company deleted the majority of these comments when they were reported, most users who posted them were able to remain on the platform, despite TikTok’s rules against sexual messages directed at children.”
ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
The latest wake-up call for social media?
A week ago, the U.K. government announced regulation would be introduced for social media, and that execs and their companies would finally be held to account. Much of the regulatory focus has been on Facebook, with Google and Twitter not far behind. But Chinese champion ByteDance is now also firmly in the fray, facing the same social media backlash and regulation. The company has emerged as a serious rival to the U.S. social media giants, and now looks set to face the same pressures to reform. ByteDance recently claimed to have removed six million videos in India for breaching guidelines.
Although Facebook and YouTube have both faced criticism for failures to protect children, much of the recent wave of criticism has focused on the spread of racist hatred, especially in light of social media’s role in the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand. ByteDance also has these same issues. In December, Motherboard reported that “users on mega-popular children’s lip-synching app TikTok are sharing calls for violence against people of color and Jews, as well as creating and sharing neo-Nazi propaganda… Motherboard found the content on the Chinese-made app, which is used by hundreds of millions of people, many including teenagers and children in the United States, within minutes of starting a basic search.”
The ban in India does not impact those who already have the app on their phones. India’s supreme court will hear the case again on 22 April. “We have faith in the Indian judicial system and we are optimistic about an outcome that would be well received by over 120 million monthly active users in India,” Tiktok said in a statement.
That social media sites will be held to account for their content is becoming more and more inevitable, that such regulation will extend to markets such as India is big news. The fact that regulation could even result in bans on apps is bigger news. India is a hugely valuable market for TikTok. If the company fails to overturn the ban this will materially impact its business metrics, it might also encourage other countries to ramp up their moves against the company.
This is a serious issue for TikTok, it should be a wider wake-up call for the rest of the industry.