New downloads of the massively popular video sharing application TikTok have been halted in India. The move was ordered on Tuesday by the federal government, following a request by a Tamil Nadu state court.
The app, owned by China’s Bytedance, is hugely successful in India. It had over 240 million downloads by February, according to independent data, and a claimed 120 million monthly active users in India of its estimated 500 million MAUs.
By Wednesday both Apple and Google online stores had removed the free-to-use app. According to observers their speedy compliance is a rarity. Their speed of action may reflect the ongoing election or attempts to distance themselves from murky accusations
Bytedance said that it is appealing against the ruling. The case will next be heard in court on April 22.
TikTok’s ease of use for making, enhancing and sharing 15-second video content has made it particularly appealing to the young and to non-English speakers among India’s vast rural population and in smaller towns. But it has regularly been accused of spreading vulgarity and child abuse.
The app was banned in neighboring Bangladesh in February as part of a government move against online pornography. The same month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ordered TikTok to pay a $5.7m fine for having failed to obtain parental consent for underage users, in breach of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
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On March 27, TikTok in India launched an online safety initiative, with quizzes in Hindi and English inviting users to understand rights and wrongs. It also teamed with the Cyber Peace Foundation to launch educational posters, to be distributed in schools and colleges. And it said that it had removed 6 million offending videos.
But it may have moved too late. TikTok’s current legal problems in India were sparked by an activist group in Chennai, which accused the app of encouraging pedophilia and pornography.
In a filing to the court in Chennai, Bytedance said that only a “very minuscule” proportion of TikTok content was inappropriate or obscene. It argued that it was could not be held responsible for what users posted, and that a ban would be a restriction on freedom of speech.
But, after lurid tales of online shootings, hate speech, soliciting and fake news groups — on WhatsApp especially — allegedly swaying voters, India’s federal government has drawn up a draft bill that would require social media platforms to take greater responsibility for the content posted by users. That could require both technical solutions and increased numbers of human moderators. Bytedance says it currently employs 250 people in India.
It is unclear whether there is also a nationalist tinge to the action against TikTok. Other Chinese apps including (Alibaba’s) UC Browser, SHAREit, Club Factory, (Toutiao’s) Helo, Vigo and LIKE have also recently made major inroads in India.