Update: After the publication of this article, TikTok has been removed from both the iOS App Store and the Google Play store.
BENGALURU — Despite talk of ‘Digital India’, the country is steadily creeping into a heavily censored Internet that bears no small resemblance to the Great Chinese Firewall. It’s no less effective for being done in a thoughtless, piecemeal manner where dozens of agencies vie to block off parts of the Internet.
The Madras High Court ordered a ban on TikTok at the start of April, directing the central government to prohibit the download of the app. It said that the app hosts inappropriate content, including pornography, available for access to children.
It’s not wrong, but this order doesn’t seem to acknowledge the whole vast Internet out there. Why TikTok, specifically, has been called out for these elements is not addressed. The government will also have to order Google to prevent downloads—which has not been done so far as the app remains available.
“By becoming addicted to TikTok App, and similar apps, or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mindset of the children are spoiled,” the court said in its interim order.
“Majority of the teens are playing pranks, gaffing around with duet videos and sharing with split screen to the strangers. The children who use the said application are vulnerable and may expose them to sexual predators,” the court observed.
India has a long history of Internet bans
This is just the most recent development though. According to reports, PUBG Mobile has around 50 million players in India and in just the last few months, it has seen bans in multiple Indian cities because authorities fear it will promote violence, or distract children from their studies, and 10 people in Gujarat have been arrested for playing a game on their phones.
There’s also the now long-running ‘porn’ ban, blocked by court orders to protect children. “The porn ban has just been silly because anyone can just use proxies or VPN to get around the ban entirely,” said Saravanan K, a security consultant based in Bengaluru. “It’s very low tech, and if you Google ‘how to unblock porn India’, there are literally hundreds of Indian news sites falling over themselves to teach people to do this.”
But a number of other innocuous websites are also getting banned, with little or no explanation. Reddit and Telegram are some of the sites that have been getting blocked for some months now. The blocks appear arbitrary, with some ISPs carrying them out but not all; and there is no explanation given on the reason for blocks.
There have also been numerous cases that saw blanket-bans on websites for short periods, on the suspicion of film piracy, where movie producers have asked courts to take out orders against unidentified entities, colloquially called John Doe orders, to prevent a crime (film piracy, in these cases) - to shut down sites that might allow their films to be downloaded.
“It’s not making any sense, what’s happening,” Apar Gupta, executive director at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said in an earlier interview. “A lot of these blocks are also happening in such a way that no notices are displayed.”
The UPA government had been hugely criticised when it blocked 254 URLs in the name of security. It was very rightfully criticised for this sweeping order. The latest porn ban blocked over 857 sites but not enough has been said about it.
A matter of free speech
TikTok has countered by stating to the Supreme Court that a ban will hurt free speech. A ban “amounts to curtailing of the rights of the citizens of India...who have been using the platform everyday to express themselves and create content,” the company said in a court filing.
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to stay the order passed by the Madurai bench of the Madras High court over the ban of TikTok.
Speaking to HuffPost India, the company also said: “At TikTok, we are committed to abiding by local laws and regulations. We fully comply with the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011.”
“It was very cute, they were all having fun. But then later, I was thinking, who actually gets to see these clips?”
The problem is that the bans aren’t happening at random. There are usually good reasons for people to worry about what their kids are doing online, and it leads to decisions like these. The catch is that each decision adds up, and we’re building a firewall around the Internet by patchwork as surely as if it were by intent.
Platforms need to do more
In the case of TikTok, a detailed BBC investigation last week found that hundreds of sexually explicit comments have been found on videos posted by children as young as nine. Not surprisingly, this is fueling fears among parents as well.
While TikTok deleted the majority of explicit comments directed at children when they were reported, most users who posted them were able to remain on the platform, despite TikTok’s rules against sexual messages directed at children, the BBC reported.
Responding to the BBC, TikTok tried to deflect the issue, and said that child protection is an “industry-wide challenge.”
Parents in India too talk about such fears. “The other day a bunch of my friends had come over with their kids,” said Shalini Verma, a media professional in Bengaluru. “So there were a bunch of girls around the same age as my daughter who is 13. We grown-ups were all talking in the drawing room, and the kids were all playing in her bedroom.”
“I went in to see how they were getting along, and they were all playing with TikTok, singing songs,” she said. “It was very cute, they were all having fun. But then later, I was thinking, who actually gets to see these clips? At least with Facebook, the rule is that she had to add me as a friend, so I can check her friend list. Here, I don’t know what’s going on, and it’s scary.”
The Internet Freedom Foundation in India agreed that the privacy of children merits urgent attention, but felt that the interim order of the Madras HC might be an overreach on the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.
“It [TikTok] is a social networking application that is aimed towards video creation and sharing. The average length of videos ranges from 10-60 seconds,” said the IFF. “While such a format has been socially critiqued for a range of impacts, the Hon’ble High Court of Madras has passed three harsh directions which merit to be contested.”
“The first direction prohibits the download of the application, the second prohibits the television telecast of videos created through it and the third directs a response from the Union Government on it’s position to legislate a statute analogous to the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).”
The way it’s been done is bad
“We have filed a PIL before the Gujarat High Court challenging the PUBG Ban and the subsequent arrests as violative of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution,” said the IFF.
“While we are thankful for the public statement by the Ahmedabad police that the ban will not be renewed, there is nothing stopping it legally from happening. What is worse are the legal prosecutions that have resulted from it.”
“While the PUBG ban may seem absurd and amusing at first glance, it is no laughing matter. Out of the twenty one people arrested, at least thirteen were young college students,” the IFF said. “For a young student who is worried about his family’s reaction and future career prospects, being arrested by the police can be a deeply traumatic experience. To us the PUBG Ban is fuelled by moral panic and the harms from video games require scientific study and then non-legal methods of engagement.”
Without transparency about whose orders the blocks are coming on, or what laws are being used for the blocks, we are left in a situation where anything could easily be banned. Right now, the fight is over pornography, which people will not want to stand up for, and gaming, which isn’t taken very seriously in India.
Last year, Corey Price, vice-president Pornhub — one of the biggest websites in the world, pornographic or otherwise — told HuffPost India that it wanted to work with the government to solve the issue of access by children.
“Similar bans have been enforced in other countries, such as Russia, where a solution was found to allow Pornhub to keep operating. We plan to handle this ban in India in the same manner, working closely with the government,” said Price.
So far, there’s been no visible progress, even as people on different online forums have complained that more and more workarounds are being taken down.
Tomorrow, a court might decide that soap operas have a deleterious effect on the mind — and while a lot of people may agree with that view, bans like these are not the solution. Technology might be able to answer at least the question of who is accessing what material.
“It is very concerning just how easy it is for someone to lie about their age or who they are online - it makes it very easy for people with malicious intent to groom young people online, and puts children and young people at great risk of seeing explicit content,” said Shantanram Jonnalagadda, Country Head India, Yoti, a digital identity platform. “We believe technology should protect society. Children should be shielded from stumbling across and accessing age-restricted content, and adults should have their privacy and identity protected when proving their age.”
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that online platforms need to ensure their content can only be accessed by individuals of the appropriate age. The technology now exists to let individuals securely prove their age online. Using digital identity technology, individuals can share specific details - for example just their verified age, date of birth, or even an ‘over 18’ attribute. This ensures only those of the appropriate age can access the platform and its content, whilst protecting their privacy and personal information.”