ByteDance, one of China's fastest-growing Internet company, is valued at more than $75 billion, according to Bloomberg. That also makes ByteDance the world's most valuable startup. ByteDance's growth beyond China is mainly unprecedented because of its excellence in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that goes behind TikTok (formerly Musical.ly), the company's viral video app, among others.
In India, TikTok has more than 20 crore users and it has grown into a viral social media sensation in the last few months, and ByteDance's exponential growth beyond China is perhaps what makes it different from the mighty BATs - Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent that dominate China's internet browsing, e-commerce, gaming and messaging.
Needless to say, India is and will always be one of the important markets for ByteDance.
Despite experiencing enormous success in such a short span, ByteDance's two-year-long journey in India has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. Constant trouble with authorities over content-related issues, subsequently resulting in calls for a ban on TikTok from all corners, is enough to raise concerns about its future in India.
Last month, Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) issued a notice to Tiktok and ByteDance's regional social media app Helo, demanding their response over allegations by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch that both TikTok and Helo were being used to perpetrate unlawful and anti-national activities.
TikTok has been fighting one crisis after the other in India for quite some time now and it has caught a huge amount of attention for its excessive usage, leading to tragic deaths and accidents across the country. Every now and then, people on social media seem to hold TikTok accountable for the havoc caused by their users and call for a ban on TikTok. But will banning TikTok solve the problem? We asked experts.
Consultant psychiatrist at Insight Clinic in Mumbai, Dr. Nahid Dave said banning or blaming TikTok is not a solution.
"Those who are using TikTok to perform dangerous stunts and activities are in fact misusing the platform. TikTok is supposed to be a platform to showcase your creativity. Those who are also spending too much time on these apps need to realise how much is too much. Because in the end, too much of anything can be bad. Whether you are playing PUBG or using Facebook for hours, self-control is a must," said Dr. Nahid Dave.
Earlier this year, Madras High Court had briefly banned TikTok over the concerns of "encouraging pornography" through its platform. The interim ban order was lifted after it failed to decide on TikTok's plea and TikTok promised to improve its overall in-app experience and environment.
In April, ByteDance said it removed 60 lakh TikTok videos for violating community guidelines in India, between the period July 2018 and April 2019.
Kazim Rizvi, a public policy entrepreneur and founder of an emerging policy think-tank The Dialogue said legally TikTok cannot be blamed for how its users decide to use the app. However, Rizvi also suggested India needs to enhance Digital Literacy as far as our usage and understanding of these social media apps are concerned.
"We cannot legally blame TikTok here. It is upto the users to use the app for their purpose. Of course, towards this, we need to enhance Digital Literacy in the country to inform our people on the productive and constructive ways of using social media, apart from entertainment needs," said Kazim Rizvi. "It is also important that social media applications such as TikTok and others create the conducive atmosphere for safe and sensible use of their applications for the millions of users out there," said Kazim Rizvi.
However, TikTok's trouble with authorities is not limited to issues related to videos uploaded by its users, especially those violating TikTok's community guidelines. SJM national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan, in his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also raised concerns whether the data of TikTok users from India is stored in China. Experts have consistently raised concerns about the safety and privacy of TikTok users.
Earlier this year, TikTok faced a record fine of $5.7 million from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 and collecting the data of kids under 13. Shortly thereafter, TikTok started restricting underage users from using its app.
"A closer relationship between India and Chinese government on data and privacy aspects is a need of the hour. The right policy approach would be to work closely with China on a bilateral level, enhance the level of digital discourse with them and arrive at a model where Indian data is safe and secure on the basis of adequate protection provided by Chinese companies," Rizvi said.
"We have to tread this path very carefully. We must allow free flow of data from India and should not balkanise the internet, while at the same time, we could look at a strong bilateral agreement with China on issues related to data for law enforcement for Indian agencies," Rizvi added.
Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said TikTok needs to go through an extensive product-level reform to create a safe experience for its users without facing a ban in India.
"Children deserve legal protection and safe experience online and to achieve all that, we need to exercise proper data protection policy and legal framework in the country," said Apar Gupta. "We have in the Draft Indian Privacy Code, 2018 made exhaustive provisions with respect to it."
The Internet Freedom Foundation, in its letter to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, had recommended alternatives to app bans.
Aiming to develop technology infrastructure, ByteDance is planning to invest $1 billion dollars in the country over the next three years. ByteDance also has plans to install a data centre in India to locally store data of Indian users. It has started discussions with local players and it could take between 6-18 months before it starts the actual process of data localisation. The company is also looking to ramp up its operations and workforce in India by December.