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