TikTok: Governments Are Cracking Down on the Teens' Favorite Video App

A roadblock for a skyrocketing app.

The Chinese social media app, TikTok has taken the world by storm thanks in no small part to its incredible popularity amongst teens. But its skyrocketing popularity has started to draw some unwanted attention from an older crowd, making it the first non-U.S. company to draw regulatory scrutiny from the world’s second-largest country.

The Indian government is drafting legislation to force the micro-vlogging platform to moderate the content posted by its hundreds of millions of users, reported the Financial Times Sunday. The country has only ever cracked down on United States-based apps, like the messaging app WhatsApp, to halt the spread of disinformation in the past. This would mark the first non-U.S. app to become a target for regulation in India because officials also see it as a potential medium to disseminate fake news.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the most valuable startup in the world, that also runs a sister app named Toutiao in China with 500 million monthly active users. In November 2017, ByteDance acquired lip-syncing Musical.ly and broke into U.S. markets more than a year ago with TikTok. The app filled the gap left by the shuttering of Vine for user-generated, short videos, and it has steadily added at least 20 million new users every month since December 2017.

tiktok global users every month
TikTok has seen explosive growth around the world.

The app has been enormously popular in India, with 39 percent of its total users coming from the Asian sub-continent according to the FT. Its skyrocketing growth, coupled with a history of misinformation spread by similar apps, were the main reasons cited by Indian lawmakers for backing the proposal.

According to the report, the legislation requires the company to develop “automated tools” that monitor and remove “unlawful information or content.” It would also require ByteDance to establish an Indian headquarters and name a senior executive that would be held responsible for any legal issues that might arise.

“What prompted our proposals is the problem with risky and criminal content,” Shri Gopalakrishnan, a senior official at the Indian electronics ministry told the FT. “The things that worry us are who takes responsibility for the content? Who moderates it?”

India’s government has called on Facebook to do the same with Whatsapp after misleading message chains resulted in mob lynchings. The company has since restricted how many times a Whatsapp message can be forwarded. A fix like that that wouldn’t work for TikTok, which has yet to respond to India’s requests. But regulations for foreign apps are also a means to allow the country’s own tech scene to flourish, instead of being eaten up by larger entities from abroad.

whatsapp
To continue growing, apps like TikTok and Whatsapp will need to play by foreign countries' rules.

Indian political leaders have led efforts to rein in American tech companies. Stronger protections for the personal data of Indian citizens, as well as measures giving officials the right to obtain private information are both on the table. If successful, TikTok would likely be forced to play ball just like Facebook.

Other countries have cracked down on TikTok. Indonesia banned the app early in 2018, only to overturn the ruling after ByteDance agreed to monitor the platform for “pornography, inappropriate content, and blasphemy.” If tech giants want access to the more than 1 billion citizens of India and elsewhere, they’re going to have to adapt to the countries’ rules.