File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )
Going forward if TikTok wants to operate in India, it needs to function as an independent body separate from the supervision and control of its Chinese counterpart
TikTok is facing a public relations crisis after its ratings dropped from 4.3 to 1.3 in a matter of a few days when Indian citizens took over Twitter and Youtube to highlight several problematic social media contents being circulated on the video-sharing platform ranging from animal abuse, rape, acid attack to justifying terrorism and promoting communal violence. Complaints before National Commission for Women have been filed, and letters have been written to the central government highlighting that the application is not suitable for the youth and that TikTok is deliberately not censoring content deemed against the interests of the Indian society.
This problem is more profound than it seems as the company behind TikTok, ByteDance has earlier been accused of censoring social media content related to Tibet, Dalai Lama and the Hongkong protests thereby acting as a mouthpiece of China Communist Party (‘CCP’). Due to the fears of espionage and data theft, US senators have moved a bill seeking to ban federal employees from using the application altogether. The connection between Chinese corporations and the Chinese Communist Party is not hidden, and it is a well-known fact that Chinese corporations do the bidding for the Chinese Communist Party overseas to advance its interests and protect its ‘Face’ by censoring content deemed unfavourable and against the ‘One China’ Policy’.
This incident highlights many lacunas existing in our current regulatory framework ranging from the protection of user data to the risk and susceptibility of the government officials, agencies, and corporations against data theft by China. Further, it showcases how an application can be used in future to harm national interests as a means of ‘social warfare’. Due to this, the central government needs to understand that TikTok is a national threat if left unchecked. Furthermore, this incident emphasizes the need for data localisation and data protection laws that protect data sovereignty and privacy. Data has been termed as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and moving forward regulating and safeguarding data is going to be one of the major challenges that regulators will face ranging from its impact on the economy, international affairs and the security of its citizens.
The Reserve Bank of India in 2018 had issued a directive to companies for storing financial system-related information in India in sectors ranging from insurance, healthcare to e-commerce, thereby mandating data localization in some form. Still, this does not cover or stop social media platforms per se to engage in cross-border transfer of personal data. On December 11 2019, the Personal Protection Bill 2019 was tabled before the parliament by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (‘MietY’) which called for restrictions on cross-border transfer of personal data, the problem with the current bill is that it only restricts the flow of “sensitive personal data” abroad. This is problematic as this does not stop adversaries from transferring personal data not considered sensitive and make a citizen database out of such collected information. Even though the majority of the companies won’t go down this path, the current TikTok incident highlights serious issues existing in our current framework, which can be seen as a threat to national security later on. This warning does not come in isolation as US officials and experts have pointed out that China by conducting a series of hacks, the most recent one being Equifax is building a massive database of American personal information through which it wants to exploit the vulnerabilities of the US.
These incidents call for serious deliberations between the Indian regulators and governmental agencies to understand the depth and seriousness of this problem. Wars in future are going to be fought over the internet where the foundations of digital economies are being laid down, and sadly India is notoriously behind the technological curve in all aspects. Not to mention that most of the government websites are not even SSL encrypted, which is an essential requirement these days.
The Indian legislators and regulators need to create appropriate safeguards that restrict the flow of information that can be used in future as espionage against Indian assets. Further, the Indian government needs to create infrastructure which monitors the transfer of data overseas in realtime. This is easier said than done, but the Indian workforce and industry experts have the technical prowess to implement such tranches that protect data sovereignty and modernize data governance. Going forward if TikTok wants to operate in India, it needs to function as an independent body, separate from the supervision and control of its Chinese counterpart or it would find it challenging to navigate the regulatory waters in India. Majority of the TikTok users are Indian, and a ban on the social media application would severely cut and limit the prospects of the company. This will impact its revenue and future valuation, a nightmare for ByteDance to say the least.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)