The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court was deciding the fate of smartphone app TikTok in India on April 24, which also happened to be the 46
th birthday of the legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. I couldn't help but think of his passive contribution to our household back in the '90s. Let me explain how. The cable TV boom had brought shows like Baywatch, titillating aerobic shows, and steamy MTV videos to our living room. I was an adolescent; my mother was the content-moderator, quietly grateful to Tendulkar every time cricket displaced any objectionable content on TV. As cricket broadcast took wing in India, the sport became family-viewing thanks to Tendulkar. All was well. A family of five. One screen. And a very different time.
In contrast, TikTok has grown in India's mobile-internet economy at a scorching pace. The app, developed by ByteDance in China, has amassed more than 100 million active users here in just two years. To put that in perspective, multilingual news platform DailyHunt may touch 200 million active users this year, having pivoted to the content and video business in 2015.
Also, consider our app usage today. Video player apps clocked the highest growth in India last year, according to analytics firm AppAnnie. These Android-phone users spent around 73 billion hours of time on video viewing and sharing apps in 2018, which is 40 percent growth over the previous year! Android users in India also spent close to 60 billion hours on social apps last year.
Short, Light, Fast
Unlike DailyHunt, TikTok has thrived on user-generated short videos that play well on low-cost handsets, many of which are priced between Rs 7,500 and Rs 10,000. A TikTok user can create content on the app, and share it across platforms. This puts it in the league (or, even intersection) of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. One of the TikTok competitors tells me that it's made a mark in small cities and towns, where smartphone users are new to the internet.
However, what's put TikTok in the dock is the objectionable content created on the app, which went viral—in particular, pornographic material created and shared by its users. While the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000 protects an internet platform (or 'intermediary') from objectionable content hosted on it by users, the IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2011 requires the intermediary to disable such content within 36 hours after it is brought to its attention in writing or by email.
A number of petitions got filed against ByteDance (TikTok's parent). The matter reached the Madras High Court. As reported by legal news website Bar & Bench, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court observed on April 3 that “the future of youngsters and mindset of children are spoiled”. That's why it ordered the government to ban TikTok, following which Google and Apple removed it from their app stores. The temporary order cited availability of inappropriate content, and children being exposed to such misuse of content by strangers. ByteDance responded by taking the matter to the Supreme Court, which asked the Madras High Court to decide on April 24. The latter lifted the ban.
Is the problem of inappropriate or objectionable content unique to TikTok? No. Are the laws in India equipped to deal with such circumstances in the context of objectionable user-generated material? No. In the TikTok case, the Madras High Court directed the Indian government to enact a law on the lines of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in the United States.
ByteDance is off the hook for now. But what could ByteDance have done to avoid the specific scrutiny it faced, where other platforms have largely skated through the issue of objectionable content? The case has perhaps created a number of learnings for the Chinese company in India, a market where internet companies first grew in the minds of affluent Indians who speak and share content in English.
For one, while TikTok has cracked the mobile technology landscape in India, it needs to build out a strong physical presence here. This is one area, where Google and Amazon have trumped even country cousin Facebook. Rajan Anandan moved on from Google India recently, but he and Amit Agarwal (of Amazon India) have for long been the face of their respective companies. The two American companies have invested in people, employing many thousands of locals, even as the contribution of the Indian subsidiaries to global revenues may still be in single digits, or unprofitable. Creating a 'local app' perception is important. One of the best examples from China is smartphone maker Xiaomi. Its Indian operation has been led by Manu Kumar Jain for five years, which is a signal of both commitment and continuity.
The second learning is funny because Indian entrepreneurs often aspire to grow ventures at the pace of Chinese internet companies like WeChat and Alibaba. Contrary to this, the nuances of scaling up an internet platform in India require large and small companies—particularly in content and social media—to grow slow. This is because of our user heterogeneity (language, religion) and low literacy rate, which have been factors in people sharing socially-insensitive content on platforms like WhatsApp.
While TikTok does not create the objectionable content, it has to now take hard measures and granularly understand what to do with the material that is going viral thanks to the app.
According to the founder of a digital video venture, which has partnered with YouTube for five years, Google's effort and machinery to see what gets uploaded has gone up in India. “There is a strong screening process in place,” he says. While this machinery may not be unique to India, both YouTube and TikTok are working in a foreign market. And a large portion of India consists of first-time internet users. “When you aim for scale, you have to develop and build a country-specific ecosystem for the company to understand what is going on,” adds the founder of the digital video venture.
Lastly, ByteDance has to face an innate bias in government and bureaucracy, which are more acquainted with business lobbies from the west, and often people who speak in English. “Being a Chinese company could put them at a disadvantage because there is suspicion in government around anything from China,” the founder says. “But all platforms have to be ready to respond when something goes wrong. These are live and evolving internet platforms. And users are also getting smarter everyday, especially those with evil intent.”
In that sense, the TikTok rise has been too swift for its own good. ByteDance has been more focused on growing MAU (monthly active users) and DAU (daily active users) rather than understanding the landscape it wants to conquer. Having said that, India needs strong and relevant laws to hold consumer internet companies accountable.
In January, digital news website Medianama held a roundtable in Bengaluru on 'Future of Safe Harbor' (for intermediaries). One of the participants pointed out that 'safe harbour' for internet corporations was fine for a certain time in the history of the internet. That needs a rethink. “The internet isn't a decentralised media anymore, where any upstart can push out the incumbent. We have to accept that some of the internet companies based out of Silicon Valley are among the largest conglomerates the world has ever seen. They enjoy a certain level of economic power,” he posited.
“Second, technologies have also changed. At one time, the safe harbour rules made sense to check and filter content... Now, it's what the intermediary wants you to see. It is what the algorithm wants you to see, and it is for profit. Business has influenced the way technology has developed, which means the intermediary is showing you what you want to see. They are not dumb carriers.”
It's over to our lawmakers!
Tech Trail is a column that delves on technology in the Indian realm. Kunal Talgeri is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru. The views in this column are those of the author.