Google and Apple have removed TikTok from their app stores in India at the direction of the Madras High Court, reports Reuters. Existing users can still use the app. The court has appointed senior advocate Arvind P Datar as amicus curiae to advice the court and assess TikTok’s ‘impact’; posting the matter for April 24.

The high court yesterday declined a request by TikTok’s operator Bytedance Technology to suspend the April 3rd ban. Bytedance had initially approached the Supreme Court, which directed the Madras High Court to hear Bytedance’s objections to the ban. The same day, MeitY had directed Google and Apple to block downloads of the app. More than 30 million users in India installed TikTok in January, 12 times more than in the same month last year.

Why did the high court ban TikTok?

The high court’s April 3 order (read on LiveLaw) by Justices N. Kirubakaran and S. Sundar pointed out four key issues with the application:

  • Pornography and mental health: The app contains “degrading culture and encouraging pornography besides causing pedophiles and explicit disturbing content, social stigma and mental health issue between teens”… ”It is evident from media reports that pornography and inappropriate contents are made available on this kind of cyber applications.
  • Pranks: “Majority of teens are playing pranks, gaffing around with duet videos sharing with split screen to the strangers”… ”People are “making cruel humour against innocent third parties. Even television channels are also telecasting TikTok videos”… ”Nobody can be pranked or shocked or being made as a subject of mockery by any third party and it would amount to the violation of the privacy.”
  • Potential exposure of children to sexual predators: Children who use the application “are vulnerable and may expose them to sexual predators”…Children are exposed to strangers and there is possibility of the photographs and other private details of strangers being landed in the hands of predators or third parties”…”There is a possibility of children contacting strangers directly and luring them.”
  • Addiction: “By becoming addicted to Tik Tok App, and similar Apps, or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mind set of the children are spoiled.”

The judgement cited instances of usage of TikTok being a source of issues/cases: an auto driver being arrested for posting a video of a woman in Chennai, a girl committing suicide on not being allowed to use the app, and a man falling into a waterfall while trying to take a selfie.

MediaNama’s take

1. Why TikTok specifically? The issues highlighted about TikTok are symptomatic of issues related to the Internet as a whole too. The Internet has porn, pedophilia, disturbing content, pranks, cruelty, potential exposure of children to sexual predators, and there’s little doubt that many services are designed to be addictive. So why is TikTok being singled out here? Because it’s new?

2. The ban seems to be a disproportionate act of censorship: While the usage of the app by itself has not been banned, it does still amount to a restriction on new users joining the application and expressing themselves on the application. The application is an enabler of free speech. By not allowing new users to join the application and express themselves, new users are being censored, and disproportionately so because they’re being punished for the actions of others.

3. Safe Harbour protections apply to TikTok: As a platform, TikTok so far enjoys protection under Section 79 of the IT Act, and the Supreme Court’s Shreya Singhal judgment on Section 79, and the platform cannot be held liable for the actions of its users, unless it doesn’t act after a court order is issued to take down the offending content.

4. Pranks are free speech too: It’s not clear whether all pranks on the platform are staged or genuine pranks. In any case, if someone finds the prank problematic, they have access to recourse under defamation laws (for the time being, under criminal defamation).

5. Protection of Children is covered under the Draft Data Protection Bill: India probably doesn’t need a separate act for privacy of children online. Protection of children is covered under the Draft Data Protection Bill, which is yet to be passed.

6. TikTok made changes for the US, for safety of children: If children are using the application, and they shouldn’t be, then that responsibility lies with parents, and not a nanny state. What the state can do, is issue warnings to better inform parents regarding what to do, and ask the platform, in case it is meant for people above a certain age only, to find ways of restricting children’s access to the app. It’s worth noting that Tik Tok recently announced a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission, wherein the company says it has “implemented changes to accommodate younger US users in a limited, separate app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience.” The additional app experience “split users into age-appropriate TikTok environments, in line with FTC guidance for mixed audience apps. The new environment for younger users does not permit the sharing of personal information, and it puts extensive limitations on content and user interaction.” There’s no reason why Tik Tok shouldn’t be doing this worldwide, including for India.

7. Accessing pornography isn’t illegal in India: Accessing pornography isn’t illegal in India. Remember when the Government of India said, in response to a petition to ban pornography, said that they don’t want to do moral policing? Read this.

Bans in Bangladesh and Indonesia

In February, Bangladesh blocked thousands of sites and apps – including TikTok – to rid the country of pornography. The crackdown was launched after Bangladesh’s Supreme Court asked the government in November to block pornography websites and the publication of obscene materials in electronic form for six months.

TikTok was also banned in Indonesia for a week last July for featuring allegedly pornographic and blasphemous content. The ban was reversed after TikTok agreed to clear “all negative content” from the app, and opened an office in Indonesia to liaise with the government over content. It also placed additional restrictions on users aged between 14-18 years, and increased security mechanisms. TikTok reportedly promised to set up a team of 20 censors to monitor and sanitise content in Indonesia.