The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology of India revealed a list of 59 apps of Chinese origin that must be blocked on the grounds of violation of data privacy of Indian users by Chinese authorities. Multiple internet service providers have been directed to block internet flow pertaining to these apps.
On the other hand, TikTok India CEO Nikhil Gandhi has released a statement, claiming, “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian Law and has not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign goverment including the Chinese government.”
The problem here is that when social media sensation Saloni Gaur aka Nazma Aapki (stage name) posted a video during the end of May — taking a dig at China’s cross-border activities in Ladakh — which was immediately removed by TikTok though it is still present on all other social media platforms.
Did TikTok India remove the video? No. The content was censored by Bytedance TikTok’s Chinese parent company. Bytedance frames the final rules for the app, and hence, an Indian citizen posting content on TikTok and TikTok India does not have much control or say in it.
The Washington Post also noticed that a search on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests showed zero content on TikTok. This topic, which was highly covered on all other social media platforms at that time, was quite clearly censored on the Chinese-owned app. Hence, the claim by the TikTok India CEO does not seem credible.
China is run by an authoritarian regime. The Communist Party of China exerts great control over Chinese companies, who are answerable to the government that intentionally secludes itself and crushes freedom of speech.
A 2017 Chinese law requires Chinese companies to comply with government intelligence operations if asked, which means that companies based in China can do very little if the Chinese government requests a company for access to data.
Another example of data privacy breach is when TikTok recently claimed that it’d stop accessing users’ clipboard content on iOS devices, after a new privacy transparency feature in iOS 14 revealed that the video-sharing platform was still continuing the practice it had pledged to discontinue the previous year in 2019. TikTok has still not announced a firm date when it will discontinue access.
Whenever a third-party app accesses clipboard of a device with iOS 14, a notification pops up. Users noticed TikTok checking content from their the clipboard even when the app was running in the background.
On the other hand, TikTok claims that the lack of political content on the social media app is because of its audience’s interests and demands. According to the app, TikTokers mainly use it for entertainment and positive content, rather than politics.
But surprisingly, there are sensitive sociopolitical videos that have trended on TikTok, like Black Lives Matter and videos against Trump or other political leaders, which include a lot of sensitive and violent content. In India, for example, the app’s content regulation (or lack thereof) resulted in the spread of racist and violent messages targeting specific groups.
While TikTok’s moderation guidelines came under scrutiny in November 2019, when it suspended US teenager Feroza Aziz’s account for posting three videos on Chinese oppression of its Uighur Muslim population. TikTok claimed that it did not suspend Aziz’s account for the content, but instead due a human moderation error.
Surprisingly, apps like TikTok, Vigo and Helo do not have a dislike or a report option. This is mere reflection of the Chinese government’sideology.
Chinese data laws allow any branch of the Chinese government to potentially access anybody’s TikTok activity. TikTok claims that it does not store user data in China, but there is little transparency on how TikTok actually works.
TikTok released its first‘Transparency Report’ by the end of 2019. However, this report did not answer many of the questions that privacy advocates and others had about TikTok.
The report focused on how TikTok was engaging with government bodies, but did not address any privacy concerns or issues on other groups TikTok is choosing to sharing data with.
Apps such as TikTok, Helo, Vigo and others says these platforms are an outlet of creative expression. Yet, there is ample promotion of vulgarity, cheap humour, violence, sexism, racism and such toxicity in the garb of creative expression.
There is no regulation laws for the content that people put out on other social media platforms or TikTok. History repeats itself when Bollywood produced mass entertainment films (sexist, racist and violent) while people thronged theatres, causing many content-driven films to die a slow death.
Things haven’t changed really though.
On a positive note, India must strengthen its poorly-regulated data security and cyber laws, and frame new ones.
As Bytedance continues to make various claims with its problematic public policies, the answer to questions such as the purpose that China uses such data for, the nature of data collected and the degree of access that the Chinese government has in tech and gadgets remain unanswered.