[Update: Ban Lifted] Google removes TikTok from Play Store in India after government and judiciary’s directive
TikTok, the popular app that lets you create short videos with dubbing, has become a global phenomenon in recent years. The app took over the gap left by Vine’s declining popularity, as it allowed its users to get creative (or cringey) with their videos. TikTok went on to merge with a similar app called musical.ly in August 2018, creating an even larger video community comprising mainly of teens and young adults. Irrespective of whether you like TikTok or hate it, the app went on to be included in Google Play’s Best Apps of 2018 for its entertainment quotient amongst its audience. But recent developments indicate that this might just be the end of the road for the app in the Indian market, as the government has sought to ban the app following rulings for the same by the Indian judiciary.
The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in India passed an ex-parte interim order on April 3, 2019 against TikTok and its parent company ByteDance Technology Pvt Ltd, directing the Government of India to prohibit the download of TikTok. The same order went on to prohibit the media from telecasting videos made using TikTok. The primary contention put forth in the order revolves around the vulnerability of children, and how the use of TikTok exposes them to sexual predators, pornography and other inappropriate content. You can read more about the order, and the order itself from LiveLaw‘s coverage.
Since the interim order was passed ex-parte (i.e. without hearing the other side), ByteDance challenged the same in the Supreme Court of India as per procedure. ByteDance contended in front of the Supreme Court that the app is like any other social media platform, and singling out of TikTok is discriminatory and arbitrary and that the ‘disproportionate’ ban has resulted in infringement of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Bytedance also argued that a “very minuscule” proportion of TikTok content was considered inappropriate or obscene by its users. Since the matter was still sub-judice (i.e. still being decided upon) by the Madras High Court, the Supreme Court did not pass a stay on the ban.
Consequent to the Supreme Court’s decision to not interfere with the ban at that stage, the Government of India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed Google and Apple to remove the app from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store respectively. The Madras High Court then proceeded along with judicial proceedings, and refused to lift the ban imposed. The Madras High Court adjourned the matter to April 24, while the next date for the Supreme Court hearing is scheduled for April 22.
As a result, the popular app and its Lite variant are no longer available for download from the Play Store in the Indian region. India made up for about 39% of TikTok’s 500 Million-strong userbase in 2018, and a move like this strongly affects the app and its ability to do business in such a key market. Users who have downloaded the app can continue using it, and the app can still be sideloaded from alternate sources for those who haven’t. But even then, this massively affects the apps discoverability and legitimacy for the end consumers.
The Madras High Court and the Supreme Court’s decision, if it does indeed go on to permanently ban TikTok in India, will set a precedent in the country wherein platforms (and “intermediaries”) will be directly held responsible for the content shared on them. The interim order furthers censorship (albeit in the interest of vulnerable groups), and a future order along the same lines will lead to massive self-censorship and content-cleanup efforts across all major platforms who still wish to count India as their market. So while you may be happy to see less of the cringey content from TikTok, the ripple effect of such decisions could go on and have far-reaching ramifications.
Update: Ban Lifted
The Supreme Court during the hearing on April 22 had said that if the Madras High Court failed to decide on the plea against the ban during the then-upcoming April 24 hearing, then the ban order will automatically stand lifted as instructed by the Supreme Court. This meant that the Madras High Court had to conclusively decide upon the matter — it could still choose to permanently ban TikTok or lift the ban — but it had to decide to do something. The ban that was passed as an interim order would be lifted irrespective.
In the proceedings in Madras High Court on April 24, lawyers appearing for TikTok informed the Court that there is technology in place to ensure that nude and obscene content is not uploaded through the app. Court-appointed Amicus Curiae (“friend of the Court”) Mr. Arvind Datar submitted that online speech in India is protected under Article 19 (1) of the Indian Constitution. In this backdrop, he submitted that there cannot be a system where something which is statutorily permissible becomes judicially impermissible. He told the Court that banning the app is not the solution and that the rights of legitimate users must be protected.
After listening to all contentions, the Madras High Court made it clear that it is only concerned about the protection of online users, particularly children, against cybercrime. The Court then vacated the interim order (i.e. lifted the ban imposed), subject to the condition that pornographic videos will not be uploaded onto the platform, failure of which would be considered contempt of Court.
ByteDance released a statement to TechCrunch:
“We are glad about this decision and we believe it is also greatly welcomed by our thriving community in India, who use TikTok as a platform to showcase their creativity. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue serving our users better. While we’re pleased that our efforts to fight against misuse of the platform has been recognised, the work is never “done” on our end. We are committed to continuously enhancing our safety features as a testament to our ongoing commitment to our users in India””
While I do not particularly appreciate the content on TikTok as it is not according to my personal tastes, I do welcome the Court’s decision to lift the ban. Banning an entire platform from being downloaded (and which could have extended onto its functioning too) based on the actions of a few is a very strong-handed move that goes against the spirit of freedom of speech as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. I am willing to look past the cringe content to stand by the principles that would have been otherwise violated.