Tik Tok Ban In America And India: Matters Arising

Tik Tok is mostly described as a “lip-syncing” app. This description portrays it as an online version of karaoke. Though TikTok gives a good lip-syncing platform, its act-out memes with sound clips are more popular. These memes then spiral into a spectrum of remixes and refix among the users. This particular feature then made room for TikTok to expand in Western markets.

It also attracted the attention of  U.S. celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Tony Hawk, and big YouTubers who are in search of the next big thing.

 In  August 2018, Tik Tok merged with Musical.ly; its U.S.-based rival. The app has maintained steady growth ever since.  In October 2018, it ranked as the most downloaded photo and video app in the Apple store globally. By late 2019, the userbase of TikTok users already hit 800 Million. As of 2020, the TikTok app has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times worldwide. 466 million are from India, 173 million from China, and 123 million from America. Almost 50% of this global audience is under the age of 34, and the average user spends 52 minutes per day on the TikTok app.

Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok is valued at $75 million. This figure Makes it the world’s most valuable startup. According to TikTok, the app has over 60 million monthly active users in the United States. 60% are female and 40% are male.

The Bone Of Contention

black smartphone displaying Tik Tok logo

In recent times, The app’s commendations have transitioned into controversy.  There have been allegations that the app threatens the security and privacy of users’ data.

America’s  Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  released a statement raising allegations against the Musical.ly app. This app was later acquired and incorporated into TikTok. The statement asserted that  “For the first three years [of its existence], Musical.ly didn’t ask for the user’s age.” 

According to the FTC’s complaint, more than 300 concerned parents reached out to Musical.ly within two weeks in September 2016. When the parents requested for their children’s data to be deleted, the company did not respond adequately. Though the Musical.ly deactivated the profiles of the children involved, it did not delete the contents they posted.

Since July 2017, the company has inquired about age. It also bars people who say they’re under 13 from creating accounts. However, Musical.ly didn’t go back and request age information for people who already had accounts. The FTC has instructed that the data be deleted. In response, TikTok users in the US were required to verify their age when they open the app. The company has also agreed to pay $5.7m as a fine (£4.3m) and implement new measures to handle users who say they are under 13.

TikTok’s settlement does not constitute an admission of guilt, but the firm does not plan to contest any of the FTC’s allegations. The process of deleting the data in question had begun as of 29th February 2019, but no specific duration to the exercise was given.  TikTok however stated that it would not be asking existing users in other countries, including the UK, to verify their age. It will also not provide the under-13 experience to users outside of the US, and instead would continue to limit use to those 13 and above, since the settlement only applied to the US.

In 2020, countless apps were caught abusing users’ privacy. They were secretly accessing the clipboard on users’ devices. One of these apps was China’s TikTok.  The app has also raised other security concerns, especially concerning its Chinese origins. Bytedance however responded. He blamed the situation on the use of an outdated Google advertising SDK. He promised that it was being replaced.

Contrary to Tik Tok’s promise,  Apple’s iOS 14 security and privacy changes discovered the same problem again. Though TikTok isn’t the only app detected by Apple, it is the highest-profile and most totemic of these apps.

The major issue with this exposure is Apple’s universal clipboard functionality. This implies that anything that is copied on a Mac or iPad can be read by the iPhone connected to it and vice versa. So, if TikTok is active on your phone while you work, the app can effortlessly read anything and everything you copy on another device: Passwords, work documents, sensitive emails, financial information. Anything.

In response to these recent allegations, TikTok stated that this was an unintentional effect of a spam filter. The filter was used to catch users who copy clipboard data to comment on multiple videos using different accounts. TikTok has however released an update without the feature.

Major Reactions

person holding black iphone 5

When TikTok’s infringement on privacy was first detected, security researchers admitted that they couldn’t say what the app might be doing with user data. In view of this, The  U.S. is working on a security review into TikTok. Tik Tok along with Huawei has become a major target for America’s stringent restrictions on Chinese technologies. This is based on the belief that these technologies have affiliations with the Chinese government.

India seems to share a similar opinion. New Delhi stated that India’s Computer Emergency Response Team had gotten several “representations from citizens regarding the security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues.”

On the 22nd of June 2020, The Indian government announced its decision to ban apps developed by Chinese firms. This stemmed from concerns that the activities of these apps threatened “national security and defense of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India”  ByteDance’s TikTok happens to be among these apps. TikTok counts India as its biggest overseas market. Reports have also estimated that this ban could cost the platform up to $6 billion. This is due to its lost access to hundreds of millions of users. 

A month after the initial ban, the  Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information technology (MeitY) barred 47 more Chinese apps. Tiktok Lite is one of the recently banned apps.

The Defense

Bytedance has not outrightly denied its infringement on users’ privacy in the past times. However, TikTok Chief Executive Kevin Mayer said the Chinese government has never requested user data. He also said that the company would not turn it over if asked. Mayer stated that data from Indian users is stored on servers in Singapore. He also revealed a plan to build data centers in India soon.  All these were stated in a letter to the Indian government dated June 28th, 2020, 

It is also seen to take active steps in complying with guidelines from the American government as regards user data.