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Fearing TikTok ban, ByteDance trying to improve relations with Indian govt

To placate authorities and save its Indian market, the company has hired Sandhya Sharma, a former employee of MasterCard India and Samsung, as the director of Public Policy.

Feb 20, 2019 by Mengjuan Li
Fearing TikTok ban, ByteDance trying to improve relations with Indian govt

After Indonesia and Bangladesh, TikTok, the user-generated video sharing app from ByteDance, one of the most high-profile startups with a valuation of USD 75 billion, may have a run-in with India.

Indonesia had banned TikTok for a while last year for “negatively influencing youths”, Bangladesh banned it this week in its fight against “obscene content” and there is pressure from multiple political groups on the Indian government to do the same.

A call to ban Chinese social media and e-commerce apps was recently given by Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the ideological group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which has close ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

After the death of nearly 42 security personnel last week in an attack by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), SJM wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that steps should be taken to prevent the economic gain of any nation that directly or tacitly supports terrorists. It said Chinese firms were making economic gains and capturing Indian user data without restrictions or monitoring. China’s reluctance to put Masood Azhar, leader of JeM and alleged mastermind behind the attack, on the UN global terror list is what provoked them.

SJM specifically said that TikTok and Helo are known for being an open ground for child pornography and possibly anti-national activities. The former charge is in tune with YouTuber PayMoneyWubby’s video last year exposing underage teens and pre-teens posting sexually-suggestive clips on the platform.

TikTok allows users to create and view lip-synced videos, music and performances. The controversies surrounding the app has only grown with its popularity. It has over 24.5 million daily active users in India. Its India market accounts for 39% of its 500 million global users. Its downloads in India rose 25 times from 1.3 million in December 2017 to 32.3 million in December 2018, according to SensorTower.

There is more than one group that wants TikTok out. A Tamil Nadu lawmaker too proposed this month that TikTok be banned over “vulgar content”. He told the legislative assembly that the platform was being used to trigger social problems and “degrade” Tamil culture.

There's more. In December last year, a report by the The New Indian Express disclosed that 36 teens and adults had spoken to helplines about TikTok-related bullying and harassment. A 24-year-old even committed suicide in October last year reportedly bothered by the trolling for his video posted on TikTok. Hindustan Times also criticized Helo, the regional entertainment content platform from ByteDance, in November, saying the platform was “rife with misinformation and propaganda”.

The rise of TikTok and other Chinese social media apps have also caught the eyes of Indian regulators for fear that fake news and extremism could grow during an election year.

Government relations are now a serious issue for ByteDance. To placate authorities and save its Indian market, the company has hired Sandhya Sharma, a former employee of MasterCard India and Samsung, as the director of Public Policy to take care of government relations in India.

ByteDance has also roped in Apurva Mehta, who has worked for Qualcomm India & South Asia as legal counsel and director, and Rahul Jain, who was with the public policy team of Google India. TikTok has responded to the controversies saying there is no basis for the factually incorrect claims raised by certain groups recently and that it is in the process of hiring a chief nodal officer based out of India.

Sources in Bytedance told Passage that the social media platform has put in place protective measures to combat unsuitable content “by combining content moderation technology with a human moderation team based in over 20 countries and regions, covering 36 languages, including major regional languages in India.”

Mengjuan Li

Mengjuan Li is an intern at The Passage. She's a graduate from the University of Warwick, with a major in global media and communications.

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