Thursday, April 25

TikTok ban in India: what lessons can it bring to the United States

In India, a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants, it only took a few years for TikTok to build an audience of 200 million users. India was its largest market. Then, on June 29, 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese apps, after a simmering conflict between India and China escalated into violence on their border.

A form of popular entertainment, which had not been the subject of political debate, disappeared overnight. Today, as politicians argue in Washington over a plan that could close off access to the 170 million Americans using TikTok, the example set by India provides a foresight of what could happen – and how the public and other social media companies dealing with it might react.

TikTok, owned by Beijing’s ByteDance, arrived early in India, establishing a broad base in 2017 in dozens of the country’s languages. Its content – ​​short videos – tended to be user-friendly and hyperlocal. An endless scroll of home productions, many filmed in small towns or farms and set to popular music, made it possible to while away hours on the cheapest and fastest growing mobile data network in the world. world. Like in the United States, TikTok has become a platform for outgoing entrepreneurs to build businesses.

Veer Sharma was 26 when the music stopped. He amassed seven million followers on TikTok, where he posted videos of himself and his friends lip-syncing and joking around to Hindi film songs. He was the son of a laid-off laborer from the central Indian city of Indore and had barely completed his formal education. His achievements on TikTok have filled him with pride. He felt “more than happy” when people recognized him in the street.

They too were happy to see him. Once, Mr. Sharma said, “an elderly couple met me and said they would watch my show before they went to bed, for a laugh.” They told him that his “show was a way to escape the drudgery of their daily lives”.

With his newfound fame, Mr. Sharma earned 100,000 rupees, or about $1,200, a month. I bought a Mercedes. After the ban in 2020, he barely had time to make one last video for his fans. “Our time together will end soon and I don’t know how or when we will be able to see each other again,” he told them.

“Then I cried and cried,” he said.

Yet short videos, many of which have been kept on TikTok and uploaded to other non-banned sites, continue to attract Indians.

Online life in India has quickly adapted to the absence of TikTok. Meta’s Instagram broke out with its Reels and Alphabet’s YouTube with Shorts, both TikTok-like products, and converted many influencers and eyeballs who had been left idle.

The services were popular. But something was lost along the way, experts say. Much of the handmade charm of Indian TikTok never found a new home. It has become difficult for small creators to be discovered.

Nikhil Pahwa, a digital policy analyst in New Delhi, tracks the global shift away from TikTok’s “algorithms, its special sauce”, which were “much more localized to Indian content” than the formulas used by the American giants that succeeded. .

Several Indian companies have tried to fill the void left by the disappearance of Chinese competition. But American tech giants, with their deeper pockets and growing global audiences, have come to dominate India. The country is now the largest market for both Youtube (nearly 500 million monthly users) and Instagram (362 million), with about twice as many users as in the United States, although they earn much less revenue per consumer.

India’s decision to cut its population off TikTok was as sudden as were the proposed U.S. efforts, which began in 2020. But the motivation was similar — and even more dramatic. While the United States and China are engaged in a new type of Cold War for economic dominance, India and China have had troops on their border since 1962. In 2020, this frozen conflict has turned hot. During a night of brutal hand-to-hand fighting, 20 Indian soldiers were killed, along with at least four Chinese, something China has never officially confirmed.

Two weeks later, India deactivated TikTok. The app disappeared from the Google and Apple stores and its website was blocked. Back then, India used to block objectionable websites and even shut down mobile data in entire regions, in the name of maintaining law and order.

There were few other signs of retaliation from India, but this action alone captured public attention. The list of Chinese apps banned by India continues to grow, now reaching 509, according to Pahwa.

Until then, the Indian Internet represented a market open to China. Unlike Indian media companies, tech startups were free to accept investments from China and other countries. TikTok was only the most popular among dozens of Chinese games and services distributed to Indians online.

Since at least 2017, after a similar border skirmish, the possibility that Chinese consumer technology could pose a risk to India’s sovereignty had been circulating in national security circles.

Indian officials have expressed concern that Chinese-owned apps could provide Beijing with a powerful messaging tool in India’s noisy media environment. Just two months before the ban, India announced new restrictions on investments from any country »share a land border with India.” Technically, this would apply to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan. But China was seen as the real target.

On June 29, 2020, the official order blocking TikTok and dozens of lesser-known Chinese services did not explicitly mention China or the bloody border fight. Instead, the measure was described as a matter of “data security and protection of privacy” of Indian citizens against “elements hostile to the national security and defense of India.”

In subsequent years, the Indian government used the argument of maintaining “the security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace” to impose its conditions even on American technology companies. He complained to Apple and Twitter, as well as Meta and Google, sometimes to prevent speech critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

But the government has no hard feelings against TikTok influencers. After the ban came into force, the The BJP contacted Mr. Sharma, who said he had become depressed. Between the loss of his income and his fame, he felt his “world crumbling”. He had already been contacted by Moj, a Bengaluru-based rival of TikTok. Mr Sharma’s career and income rebounded after he released a music video with his state’s chief minister and started making promotional videos along with other BJP office holders. He now feels proud to help advance Mr. Modi’s political agenda.

Another TikTokker who was temporarily “heartbroken” by the ban was Ulhas Kamathe, a 44-year-old father from Mumbai. He somehow achieved a moment of international fame by devouring platters of chicken while muttering “piece of chicken thigh” with his mouth full, an instant meme. After losing his nearly seven million followers on TikTok overnight, he says he recovered – finding five million on YouTube, four million on Instagram and three million on Facebook.

“For the last three years, I rebuilt without any help, all by myself,” he said.