This week, the Madras High Court in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu must hand down a final decision on whether to ban Bytedance’s short-video app TikTok. The decision could severely impact the app’s reach: Last year, Indian users made up 27% of total installs of the app’s international version.
Meanwhile, accusations of cyberbullying and predatory behavior are echoing official backlash against online platforms around the world. Australia passed strict new laws to hold social media companies accountable in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, while Sri Lankan authorities shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and other platforms after Sunday’s suicide bombings.
While TikTok’s issues in India are different, the fast-growing news platform Helo could be a target for future crackdowns. With some of the company’s apps embroiled in controversy, we take a closer look at Bytedance’s presence in the country. Finally, we review major headlines from the last two weeks, several of which focus on Bytedance’s current troubles in India.
How Bytedance pursued localization to a fault
In focus / ByteDance #4
TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.
Following in the footsteps of smartphone brands like Xiaomi and Oppo, Chinese apps saw surging adoption rates in India last year. In 2018, according to a report by Sensor Tower, 44 of the country’s top 100 Android apps were Chinese.
Among those, Bytedance’s short-video apps TikTok and local-language news curation platform Helo were standouts. In addition, the company has launched another short-video app in India: Vigo Video.
The company supports “lite” versions of all of the above in India, reflecting the demand for low-bandwidth editions of apps in emerging markets.
Helo in particular shows Bytedance’s attempts to localize in India. Launched in June 2018 to cater to the country’s large local-language user base, which outnumbers its English-language audience, the app is available in 14 languages.
That places it on par with Indian news app ShareChat, which launched in 2015 and has in fact sued Helo for copying its interface. ShareChat’s investors include both Xiaomi and Beijing VC firm Shunwei Capital, which led a $99 million Series C for the startup in September.
According to data from Sensor Tower, here’s how downloads of Helo, ShareChat, and smaller competitor Dailyhunt (of which Bytedance’s Toutiao is a minority stakeholder) on Google Play compared in March.
Google Play downloads in March (millions)
Downloads do not necessarily reflect ongoing use of the app; in December, ShareChat reported 40 million monthly active users compared to Helo’s 25 million. However, it seems clear that Helo is ahead in the race to acquire new users, not least because of significant spending on promotion.
That could be a cause of concern for authorities. Last November, a Hindustan Times report pointed out prominent and potentially inflammatory fake news reports on both Helo and ShareChat.
As hundreds of millions of Indians proceed to cast their votes for the 2019 general elections, Facebook has already come under scrutiny for not doing enough to stop false reports and hate speech, in part because its moderation system targets mainly English content. In 2018, according to the tracker of the Indian nonprofit Software Law and Freedom Center, the country saw 134 internet shutdowns, some of which included temporary regional bans on Facebook and other online services. Many were imposed in order to “curb violence and unrest in conflict-ridden areas,” according to official explanations.
While Helo seeks to gain users and edge out competitors like ShareChat, it’s unclear whether the company is spending equal effort on monitoring its multilingual content.
That leads us back to TikTok, whose fate is currently being considered in court (see below for details).
In addition to harboring potential problems, TikTok’s rapidly growing profile makes it a prime target for a crackdown. As of the end of last year, it reported 20 million daily active users (DAU), significant growth from October, when the company claimed 12.5 million daily active users.
While falling far short of its Chinese version, Douyin, in terms of overall adoption, TikTok’s rate of growth in India (60%) surpassed even Douyin’s spurt of popularity in the last months of 2018 (25%).