Skip to navigationSkip to content
Visitors take a selfie at a pandal, a temporary platform, with art installation titled "Mars Mission" as part of the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata
Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Something is wrong.
OUTSIZED

Almost every social network has a porn problem—so why is India banning only TikTok?

By Ananya Bhattacharya

TikTok is in some serious trouble in India. Though it isn’t the only one battling a rising tide of porn, violence, and fake news, the country’s courts have singled out the Chinese video-sharing app for a ban.

Incumbents such as Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook have been fighting the same problems as TikTok has, but they haven’t yet faced such extreme measures. Several experts have called the Madras high court ban on the world’s most popular video app a “kneejerk reaction” that is “outsized.”

“While it is important to place appropriate curbs on porn and trolling, this decision sounds extreme since there are myriad ways to spread the two vices,” Anindya Ghose, the Heinz Riehl professor of business at New York University’s Stern School, told Quartz.

So why is TikTok bearing the brunt?

Singled out?

Unlike TikTok, most other social media and video/photo sharing apps are largely private and controlled in nature, which means a post can only be seen by a limited network of a user. “The issue with TikTok is it encourages interactivity over videos,” said Prasanto Roy, a New Delhi-based tech policy consultant. “Facebook and Instagram start out with smaller circles or friends groups, while TikTok can get to a larger audience quickly—including allowing video interaction with strangers.”

Given that TikTok is much younger to most others in the segment, the app lacks certain safeguards to ensure users’ safety. For instance, there are no checks & balances on the app to moderate user-generated content, experts told Quartz.

“Other social media (platforms) pro-actively filter out content that violate their community guidelines,” Shweta Mohandas, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society of India (CIS), told Quartz. “The fact that TikTok’s community guidelines’ reporting mechanism is based on user reports could be a reason why the porn problem has become more prevalent.”

Although some cases slip through the gaps, Facebook and Google are proactively blocking search terms related to child porn. Facebook and Instagram are also using sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) tools to detect revenge porn. Vernacular-language social network Sharechat also has algorithms that flag illicit content. “YouTube gives you policies and they remove your video or puts a strike against your account, but there’s no such rule or guideline on TikTok,” Indian YouTuber and TikTok-user Kulbushan Kundalwal said in a video reacting to the ban.

It has been trying to strengthen its systems lately.

The app, which lets users create and post 15-second-long videos, has set up a team of content moderators who speak a number of regional languages. It has also hosted awareness drives featuring celebrities. However, it relies mostly on user reports.

Clearly, these measures are not enough and millions of its Indian users—almost 40% of the app’s 500 million user base—remain exposed to risks.

In the US, too, TikTok was berated based on similar concerns. It recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission, paying $5.7 million (Rs40 crore), the largest civil penalty ever collected in a child privacy violation case in the US.

Will this ban help?

Taking the app down can slam the brakes on its meteoric rise, but won’t kill it. Banning one app won’t change user behaviour, experts said.

For starters, users who have it installed can continue using it. And though it’s not directly available for download from the app store, there are ways to get it. In fact, getting on the app is easy: Any existing user can share the app with others through platforms like ShareIt.

TikTok is not a unique proposition.

There are also several third-party app stores, other than those of Google and Apple—apkpure, androidapkbox, and uptodown, among others—where TikTok is still available.

In any case, it is not the only source of dangerous content online. “TikTok is not a unique proposition,” Gurugram-based market research firm techARC said in a note. The ban has already begun to boost similar apps.

For instance, since April 16, around the time when news of a likely ban on TikTok in India began floating, video-sharing app Like has been trending as the third most popular in India on analytics site App Annie’s charts, techARC found.

“There is a need to have a holistic approach to getting rid of such digital menace that cannot be absolved by technology or legal recourse alone,” techARC founder and chief analyst Faisal Kawoosa said.