The Madras High Court on Wednesday lifted its ban on downloading the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok, subject to a condition that pornographic videos would not be uploaded on it, NDTV reported. The court had imposed the temporary ban on April 3, on the ground that the app was responsible for spreading pornography, potentially exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting users’ mental health. Google and Apple removed the app from their app stores on April 18 under HC direction. TikTok appealed to the Supreme Court against the order, where the Madras HC was directed to rule on TikTok’s appeal by April 24, failing which the ban would cease to operate. It is worth nothing that the ban only applied to downloads of the app, and existing users were able continue to its usage. TikTok has an estimated 120 million users in India, by far its largest market, as per The Verge.

TikTok argued that there was technology in place to ensure that obscene content was not uploaded through the app. It also filed a counter-affidavit explaining its security measures and machine-moderation which would prevent uploads of videos with obscenity or nudity.

Arvind Datar, amicus curiae in the matter, elaborated on Intermediary Liability protections under the IT Act to explain the scope of exemption for platforms under Section 79, and said that intermediaries were not required to screen all content hosted on their platform. He explained the balance between freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (including online speech) and intermediary liability, and submitted that all intermediaries must put in place a grievance officer. A petitioner in the case argued for the ban to continue since TikTok is a Chinese app, and the threats posed to India by China. The court however made it clear that only safety of users, and particularly children, would be considered, resulting in the lifting of the ban.

Updates based on tweets from @barandbench.

Ban resulted in losses of $500,000 a day, put jobs at risk

TikTok’s ban in India caused its parent company Bytedance losses of $500,000 a day and put more than 250 jobs at risk, Reuters reported. TikTok argued that it was protected by the safe harbour provisions of the IT Act. It also said TikTok being singled out was arbitrary discrimination since it was similar to any other platform. Besides, only a tiny percentage of videos on its platform were flagged as inappropriate, and the ban thereby violates the right to free expression.

What TikTok has done to fix itself

  1. Age gate: After Madras HC’s April 3 ban, TikTok announced an age gate feature for new users, which will prevent those aged below 13 years from creating an account. This is a feature TikTok has had to introduce in the US as well, where it faced litigation from the FTC over violation of children’s online privacy. More on this feature here.
  2. Content moderation: Tiktok said it has taken down over 6 million videos that violated its community guidelines since July 2018. Its content moderation strategy combines moderation technology with a human moderation team to effectively police offending content. The team is said to be based in some 20 countries, including India, and covers major Indian languages including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati. These measures came after the the Madras HC ordered Google and Apple to remove the app.
  3. Safety Centre in 10 Indian languages, asking users for ‘restraint’: Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, TikTok last month made its Safety Center available in in 10 major Indian languages – Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Oriya. It introduced a section on India’s elections, asked users to be responsible, and report unlawful content to the ECI. It also offered advice on how to combat bullying – including how to make an account private, deleting or filtering comments and fans, reporting harassment – and included links to anti-bullying resources.

Neighbours block TikTok to rid themselves of porn

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

TikTok was also banned in Indonesia for a week in July last year for allegedly featuring 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 its security mechanisms. It reportedly promised to set up a team of 20 censors to actively monitor and sanitise content in Indonesia.