The Free Internet Project

censorship

Tik Tok is all the rage, so why did India ban it?

Tiktok is a social medial platform owned by a Chinese firm named Bytedance. The app was first developed in China, but is growing more and more popular especially among teens all over the world for its combination of music, dance and peculiar humor through creating and sharing short videos. Another popular feature is live-streaming, which grants real-time interation between the host and the audience. Users do not even need to speak English to become an overnight hit with millions of followers on Tiktok. 

Tiktok has become phenomenal. The idea of producing short clips is not new – Snapchat and Instagram had similar functions too. And creating videos has been around since YouTube. But, with an enormous user base in China, this new contender surpassed other video-sharing sites and gained incredible popularity. Presently, Tiktok has over 500 million active users worldwide. Tiktok's worldwide success as an Internet platform is rare for a Chinese-based company. China’s strict internet restriction is well-known. By putting up firewalls, mainstream Western social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are inaccessible in China. 

India announced the controversial decision to ban TikTok in its borders. Why? As the border clash between China and India escalated, the Indian government recently banned 59 Chinese apps, including Tiktok, citing concerns over activities prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, according to the New York Times.  Alternative Indian native platforms such as Glance and Roposo are eager to seek new users after Tiktok’s leave, but watchdog groups are concerned that Indian local apps may also be censored and controlled by the government or exploited for political propaganda. While banning Tiktok could also be a token of revenge against China for the border skirmish, the ban could also be viewed as India’s determination in safeguarding its citizens’ data from foreign manipulation.

Taking the cue from India’s decision, the US is considering a ban on Tiktok too. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Americans not using the app unless “you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” indicating the app is secretly sponsoring users’ data to the Chinese government.  

Having a reputation of exercising a tight grip over the internet environment, the Chinese government is frequently accused of privacy breaches. Bytedance, the Chinese firm that owns Tiktok, encountered several challenges as it expanded market worldwide. In February 2020, Bytedance was fined £4.2million by the US Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting personal information from children under 13 without requiring parent consent. On July 3, 2020, the head of the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office announced that Tiktok was undergoing a similar investigation regarding protections of children’s personal data as its open message system permit adults to directly contact children and thus subject children to risks such as online solicitations and harassments.

Of course, data breaches in social media are not uncommon in the modern digital age. Facebook was accused multiple times for harvesting users’ private information without their consent. Thus, banning Tiktok in the name of privacy protection sounds extreme since other breaches of data by social media have not resulted in banning an entire platform in a country. 

Some users have expressed a suspicion that the major impetus for the US ban on Tiktok was the significant role that Tiktok played during the BlackLivesMatter rally. In the pandemic era, Tiktok fostered new political expressions. For example, activists who could not march on the street in person, created videos with hashtag #blacklivesmatter to demonstrate cyber solidarity for racial injustice. As CNN reported, users on Tiktok also live-streamed the street protest, documented police assaulting peaceful demonstrators.  Tiktok lowered the barrier of communication, allowing users from all over the globe to share content and exchange ideas. Apart from showing cute dogs, teenagers’ funny dance steps, and other mundane occurrences, Tiktok also entered the political sphere even there is a lack of a number of politicians being active on the site. Despite the alleged privacy and national security concerns, it is one of the fastest and most unfiltered ways for people to spread messages.

“Any kind of public policy response which is premised on grounds of national security needs to emerge from well-defined criteria, which seems to be absent here,” executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation Mr. Gupta said to the New York Times. Banning may be a quick fix, but if authorities could ban an app in the name of protecting citizens’ data without showing clear evidence supporting the alleged claim or legal authority for such an extreme action, it sets a dangerous precedent that would greatly impair internet freedom. Of course, there remains the tension that popular Western based social media platforms are still banned in China. 

-written by Candice Wang

 

 

 

South Africa considers the Films and Publications Amendment Bill that critics claim would equal Internet censorship

South Africa's National Assembly is considering the Films and Publications Amendment Bill [text], which is intended to amend the Films and Publications Act of 1996. The bill has sparked great controversy in the Internet community. Many critics call it the "Internet censorship bill."  

What are the fears of censorship?  Part of the controversy is the section establishing an independent rating system for "digital films, digital games and certain publications." Critics argue that the provision is overly broad and could apply to every creator of videos on YouTube in South Africa, even user-generated content--thereby subjecting them to register as a distributor with the Film and Publication Board (FPB's).  Section 24A treats failure to register as a potential criminal offense subject to fine or imprisonment ("(1) Any person who knowingly distributes or exhibits in public a film or game without first having been registered with the Board as a distributor or exhibitor of films or games shall be guilty of an offence and liable, upon conviction, to a fine not exceeding R150 000 or to imprisonment for a period.").

In addition, any distributor under the FPB's jurisdiction would be required to maintain controls to prevent individuals under 18 years of age from accessing material classified as "X18," including the following verification:

  • the distributor shall keep, solely for his or her private records, a register of all instances where access was granted to a user, whose name, address and verifiable age must be noted in the register kept for that purpose.
  • the register referred to in paragraph (e) must be kept for one year from the date when distribution took place.

Critics argue this registry could chill adults from accessing legal content and constitute an invasion of privacy.  According to new reports, the Democratic Alliance, "MultiChoice, eNCA, eTV, Right2Know, Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Coalition, the South African National Editors Forum, the National Association of Broadcasters, Google and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)" have all opposed the bill.   

Google Seeks Return to China as China Increases Its Censorship

Google is reportedly in negotiation with the Chinese authorities to re-enter the Chinese market after Google's withdrawal 5 years ago due to China's censorship of content, including Google search results. Google hopes to launch an app store for Android-based smartphones and tablets. The news comes as China's government continues to crackdown on the use of VPN services, which enable people in China to attempt to evade the Great Firewall of China, which blocks people's access to censored sites. VPN services were disabled or experience outages in China at the end of August.  

India's government blocks 857 websites for pornography and other reasons

India's Department of Telecommunications reportedly issued a secret order on July 31, 2015 that orders ISPs in India to disable access to 857 websites.  Pursuant to Section 7913(b) of the Information Technology Act, the government has the authority to censor content for "morality" and "decency."  Some of the 857 websites reportedly include pornography, but other sites include College Humor and other non-pornographic sites.  India has a history of censoring the Internet.  [More from IBN live

India Supreme Court rules censorship law Section 66A unconstitutional violation of free speech

On March 24, 2015, the Indian Supreme Court rendered an important free speech decision (running over 100 pages in length) that invalidated an amendment to the Information Technology Act known as Section 66A.

China censors cleavage in popular TV drama "The Empress of China"

China has reportedly censored female cleavage out of the popular drama "The Empress of China."  According to the Daily Mail, the show was pulled last month and resurfaced this week with all shots of female cleavage cropped out.  

Iran starts "smart filtering" of Instagram, may lead to unblocking Facebook, Twitter, YouTube in 2015

According to The Guardian, Iran has started a trial of a "smart filtering" of Instagram photographs, allowing Iranians access to the site but selectively blocking certain posts, such as those by @RichKidsofTehran, which shows wealthy, young Iranians "flaunting their wealth."  If the smart filtering proves successful, Iran may deploy the system on other popular social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which currently are blocked in Iran. 

“Presently, the smart-filtering plan is implemented only on one social network in its pilot study phase and this process will continue gradually until the plan is implemented on all networks,” Mahmoud Vaezi, the Iranian Communications Minister, said.

The goal is to have the system in place by June 2015.  Some Iranians expressed fear that the Iranian government would start cracking down on virtual private networks (VPNs), which already allow people in Iran to bypass the blocking of popular websites and social media.

China blocks Gmail

Reports out of China indicate that Gmail service is being blocked since last Friday, the day after Christmas.  Google's own Transparency Report shows a steep decline--a virtual flatline--to Google Gmail service out of China as depicted in Figure 1 below.

Thus far, China's government denies blocking the Gmail service.  Users of Gmail in China may have to use a virtual private network (VPN) to get access to their emails in China. Google services have reportedly experienced major disruptions in China since the summer. 

 

Facebook, Google, Twitter won't comply with Russia's orders to remove info on opposition rally

The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter appear to plan on defying Russia's communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, which has ordered them to block information related to a January 15 rally for opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted on the U.S. social media sites accessible in Russia. Navalny is under house arrest under charges of fraud that his supporters claim are trumped up charges to silence the opposition. 

According to WSJ, Roskomnadzor issued its orders under a new law in Russia that authorizes prosecutors to issue such orders without court authorization or involvement.  

Facebook Issues 3rd Government Requests Report (Censorship and User Information)

Facebook came out last week with its third Government Requests Report that compiles data regarding requests by governments around the world from January to July 2014 to take down information or obtain user information from Facebook. India led the requests for censoring material on Facebook, with 4,960 pieces of content removed upon India's government's request.  Turkey was second (1,893 pieces of content taken down), Pakistan third (1,773 pieces of content taken down), and Germany fourth (34 pieces of content taken down).

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