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India halts downloads of TikTok video app, citing harm to children

TikTok, the Chinese video app whose growth has been as viral as one of its lip-synced dance clips, has encountered a roadblock in India.

[MUMBAI] TikTok, the Chinese video app whose growth has been as viral as one of its lip-synced dance clips, has encountered a roadblock in India.

Google and Apple removed TikTok from their app stores in India late Tuesday after the country's Supreme Court refused to block a lower court order halting new downloads. The lower court, based in Tamil Nadu state, is hearing a petition seeking a ban on the app, on the grounds that it spreads pornography and threatens the well-being of children.

TikTok, which has 120 million users in India and more than half a billion worldwide, has been particularly popular with children and young adults because its tools make it easy to record, share and watch short videos.

But it has also come under increasing scrutiny from governments around the world, including the United States, for allowing users to post objectionable content and for pushing children to share too much information with strangers.

In India, the app has been caught up in a bigger debate over the inability of social media to stop the spread of false information, the dangers to children posed by mobile technology and the vast influence of US and Chinese technology giants.

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The Indian court hearing the TikTok case issued a rambling order this month reciting the petitioner's claims that TikTok was filled with pornography, exposed young people to sexual predators, spoiled the mind and prompted people to kill themselves.

"The government has the social responsibility to prevent these kinds of applications," the two-judge panel wrote as it ordered an interim ban on downloads of the app. The court issued its initial order without giving TikTok a chance to respond to the allegations.

"We have faith in the Indian judicial system," TikTok said in a statement Wednesday. The company noted that it had stepped up its efforts to remove objectionable content and had already taken down 6 million videos in India.

TikTok's lax controls have also incurred the wrath of US regulators. In February, the Federal Trade Commission announced a US$5.7 million settlement with TikTok over accusations that it obtained and shared personal information such as names and photos from children under 13 without parental consent.

Internet companies in the United States are supposed to seek such consent before allowing children to use their services, but India has no such regulations. That has left communities struggling to cope with technology's influence on their children.

Last month, several cities and districts in Gujarat, the home state of India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, banned PUBG, another app popular with young people. Officials argued that the game, a mobile multiplayer shooter owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, distracted children from their studies. About 20 people, many of them students, have been charged with violating the ban, according to local news reports.

More broadly, India's central government is wrestling with an overhaul of its rules governing online services. It is considering requiring tech companies to automatically censor a wide range of content and other policies that would promote Indian firms and rein in foreign tech companies.

TikTok, which is owned by Bytedance, a company based in Beijing, has come under additional scrutiny in India because of its national origin. Some Indian officials suspect that China's government is using popular Chinese apps to scoop up private data on Indians.

"There is a belief that Chinese apps are a threat to national security," said Salman Waris, an expert in international technology law at TechLegis in New Delhi.

But India and the United States are not the only countries concerned about the app. Bangladesh banned it two months ago as part of a crackdown on pornography. Indonesia prohibited it last July, citing objectionable content, but restored access a week later.

Mr Waris said that restricting an app like TikTok over content it couldn't control was a slippery slope. Other major internet platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Google's YouTube struggle with the same issue and could theoretically face similar bans.

The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group in New Delhi, wrote to India's technology ministry Wednesday, denouncing the blanket bans as "reactionary and disproportionate" and saying they violated Indians' right to free speech. However, the group also urged the government to begin a public process to create a formal technology policy to protect children.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #TikTokban was a trending topic on Twitter for much of Wednesday. Fans and detractors weighed in with memes, jokes and TikTok videos to mourn its suspension or celebrate it.


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