New Delhi: On 29 June last year, India banned the popular short-form video app TikTok amid border tensions with China. A year since, the app that gave many Indians instant fame and following amid TikTok circles, still remains off limits, but the company is keen to resume operations.
A source in the know told ThePrint that the ByteDance-owned company is keen to resume operations given the new IT rules of the Modi government and the Biden administration deciding to review security of Chinese apps, instead of outright banning them. However, experts and government officials don’t see India lifting the ban.
“ByteDance is definitely hopeful that the ban will be lifted and that operations in India can be resumed. India is a key market for ByteDance and no tech company can afford to not be in a country of 1.4 billion users,” the source said.
Despite TikTok being popularly viewed as a Chinese app, the source added, “ByteDance is a global firm and pursuant [to] this, ByteDance has not even sought intervention of Chinese diplomats in discussions with the Indian government as the convention may be for Chinese companies.”
According to the source, TikTok representatives continue to meet with the government to push its case. “This year also, ByteDance has approached IT ministry, PMO officials and reiterated that ByteDance and TikTok will work to comply with the 2021 intermediary guidelines.”
Well before the new IT rules were notified in February this year, TikTok had appointed nodal and grievance officers who are India residents — requirements under the new rules for ‘significant’ social media intermediaries, i.e., firms with over 50 lakh users.
TikTok had an estimated 20 crore users in India at the time it was banned.
ThePrint emailed media communication units for the IT ministry, the home affairs ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for a comment, but didn’t receive a response till the time of publishing this report.
‘Ban was a surprise’
The source quoted above told ThePrint that TikTok had been working to build good relations with the Indian government, complying with local laws and so on. Which is why the ban “came as a surprise”.
“TikTok/ByteDance has always worked to comply with local laws, including content takedown requests from Indian government before the ban on 29 June 2020. TikTok officials were in touch with government officials, especially from IT ministry, to talk about the company’s CSR [corporate social responsibilities] efforts … it came as a surprise for ByteDance when suddenly TikTok was banned in India.”
On 29 June, about a fortnight after the Galwan Valley clash that saw 20 Indian soldiers ‘killed in action’ last year, ties with China remained tense. India then banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, which were considered “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India”.
“The India ban on TikTok came with no clear process, and TikTok is still trying to understand what happened, why the ban, whether TikTok was somehow not satisfying requirements set by the government … When the ban was applied, there was no clear reason given [as to] why,” the source said.
Soon after the ban, ByteDance received a detailed questionnaire on 7 July from the IT ministry, asking about TikTok’s data storage practices, who owns and manages the company, and content moderation practices. “ByteDance was transparent and shared all information requested,” the source added.
On 30 June last year, TikTok India tweeted a similar statement: “TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law…”
— TikTok India (@TikTok_IN) June 30, 2020
In January 2021, the government had told ByteDance the ban will continue but the company remains “hopeful”, the source said.
No end in sight
While border tensions have somewhat eased, with India and China forces disengaging at Pangong Tso’s north and south bank in Ladakh, New Delhi has shown no signs of rolling back its ban on Chinese apps.
“As per Indian Army chief in a recent statement, the trust broken by China in Galwan has not yet been restored. So I do not see it as an appropriate time to resume TikTok,” said Lt General (Dr) Rajesh Pant, the National Cyber Security Coordinator, in an email response to a query from ThePrint.
Retired IFS officer Smita Purushottam, who served as counsellor for economic and commercial affairs at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, echoed similar sentiments.
“I do not see any reason to lift the ban … it created an opening for Indian-owned social media alternatives … Lifting the ban could be the thin end of the wedge, leading to the Chinese overwhelming our ICT [information communication technology] ecosystem once again.”
Former national cybersecurity coordinator Gulshan Rai, in a WhatsApp exchange with ThePrint, said, “It is highly unlikely if TikTok will be permitted at this stage, especially given TikTok has not stated precautions and steps they will take to prevent data migration/theft and correction of grounds for which they were banned.”
Ankur Pahwa, partner at Ernst & Young who leads the e-commerce & consumer Insternet sector, said, “There appears to be no change in India’s stance towards China, so it is unlikely any of the apps can resume operations in India.”
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)