The ban on TikTok, a video-creation and sharing app, has made its pool of 120 million Indian users unhappy. Users record short videos and watch videos by others. On April 3, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court imposed an interim ban on TikTok on the basis of a complaint that it was “degrading culture and encouraging pornography besides containing explicit, disturbing content and causing social stigma and medical health issue between teens”. This is not the first time that TikTok has been caught up in a legal quagmire. A few months ago, it paid $128 million to settle a US court case in which it was alleged that it enabled sexual predators to target minors. Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns it, claims that it has since put parental and privacy controls in place to ensure children can safely use it. It is, of course, imperative that minors should be protected. But a ban may not be effective in fulfilling that aim. Moreover, this ban itself may set a precedent of impinging on freedom of expression, and the freedom to earn a living, and infringement of privacy.
To begin with, “degrading culture” is a matter of opinion and not illegal. The other allegations in that complaint should be based on hard data. Banning an app or a software tool on the basis that it can be used to create objectionable, or obscene content, seems like an over-reaction. Any video-creation-cum-sharing platform — and there are many — could be used for such purposes. Moreover, when it comes to protecting children, some part of the responsibility devolves upon parents. Unfortunately, even though privacy and parental control tools exist, the generation gap often means that minors are more tech-savvy than their parents. There have indeed been a few disturbing incidents involving TikTok. For example, there have been accidents when youngsters have attempted to make videos while riding motorcycles. However, the lack of parental knowledge should not result in a ban, nor can the app be blamed for lack of caution, or common sense, on the part of users. In analogy, taking selfies in dangerous circumstances has resulted in many fatal accidents worldwide but nobody has suggested banning camera-mobiles.
TikTok is an important platform for the talented to showcase content and promote brands. These users could claim, and with justice, that their freedom to work is being infringed. Also, if a user creates and hosts explicit videos on a private account, that is really nobody else’s business. A blanket ban infringes those rights. In practice, this ban is also an example of shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted. There is no reasonable way to shut down 120 million users. Nor will the ban stop tech-savvy persons from downloading the app. Instead, the court might perhaps have asked the company to prominently feature its privacy controls and educate parents about safe usage. The court has appointed amicus curiae to help it to come to a decision by the next hearing on this matter. One only hopes the court considers the multiple precedents this case could create and come to a reasonable decision. In any case, bans hardly serve any purpose. After TikTok was banned in India, downloads of the Chinese social media app reportedly surged by 10-15 times on third-party sites.―Business Standard