INSIGHTS: TikTok’s overseas issues

5 min read
(Image credit: Bigstock/bigtunaonline)

A version of this first appeared in our members-only newsletter. Freely available on our site now, it soon won’t be. Become a member and make sure you don’t miss out.

On April 25, an Indian state court reversed an earlier decision to ban TikTok from app stores that serve Indian users. The April 3 decision in question, handed down by the Madras High Court, had cited pornography and safety risks for minors when ordering the Indian federal government to ban downloads of TikTok. This is not the first time that TikTok, or other Bytedance products, have had run-ins with local law in other countries.

Bottom line: Bytedance learned a key lesson in Madras. Unlike other Chinese companies that have enjoyed success abroad, such as smartphone makers, Bytedance creates products that have the potential—if not managed well—to create considerable social harm. Especially in India and Indonesia, which have strict laws against pornography and blasphemy, the company needs to apply the content-control best practices they have honed in China. Given the mounting pressure on Chinese companies as they seek new markets abroad, Bytedance cannot afford to trip over their own feet as they continue their meteoric growth.

Recent events

  • September 2017: Bytedance launches TikTok in Indonesia. In the initial announcement, the company conflates TikTok and Douyin. Since then, however, they have made it clear that the two are separate apps with separate teams. However, most of the content positions listed on the company’s website are based in Beijing, as of May 9.
  • November 2017: Bytedance buys Musical.ly, also headquartered in China, for an estimated $1 billion.
  • April 3, 2019: The Madras High Court orders that TikTok be banned from app stores in India based on concerns about “pornographic and inappropriate content.”
  • April 22, 2019: The Indian Supreme Court orders the Madras High Court to review its judgment within a week, threatening to vacate the judgment otherwise.
  • April 24, 2019: The Madras High Court reverses its ban but warns if any “controversial” videos violating their conditions appear in the app, Bytedance will be found in contempt of court.
  • April 30, 2019: TikTok reappears on app stores in India.

David vs Goliath: The original suit was brought by one man, Muthukumar Sankaran. This was Sankaran’s 147th lawsuit involving public interest litigation, whereby an individual files suit against the government to force them to take action against possible public harm. In the case of TikTok, Sankaran filed the suit against Madras and included Bytedance as a respondent. He decided to sue after a young girl approached him saying that people were inserting sexually explicit content into her TikTok videos that suggested she was a prostitute.

Missed opportunities: App analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates that the ban cost Bytedance up to 15 million new users. In a blog post, Oliver Yeh estimated TikTok’s global installs in April to be 33% lower than in the previous month. The ban also reportedly cost Bytedance $500,000 a day. According to Sensor Tower, TikTok rapidly returned to its former status in the Top 10 on India’s iOS App Store. To make up for lost time, the app is offering cash prizes of up to 100,000 rupees (around $1,445) daily for three users who share the hashtag #ReturnOfTikTok.

Typical positioning: According to Indian media, Bytedance’s lawyers claimed the company was only an “intermediary” and couldn’t be held responsible for user-generated content. Both Facebook and Twitter make the same claims: Since they do not curate content, they are not publishers responsible for the content found inside their website and apps. This is a legal maneuver meant to take advantage of a legal loophole that allows it to skirt legal responsibility. It is also demonstrably false as both platforms regularly ban users and remove “harmful content.” Indeed, Facebook has a content moderation team of at least 4,500 people. The Information estimates that Bytedance has 10,000 people dedicated to content moderation.

Not the first time

  • In December 2017, Chinese regulators crack down on Jinri Toutiao, Bytedance’s founding and flagship product, claiming it was spreading “pornographic and vulgar information.”
  • The potential for abuse of minors was first brought to our attention by YouTuber PayMoneyWubby in July 2018 after a Bytedance representative tried to have the same video taken down over copyright violations. (Warning: This video can be quite vulgar at times and features strong language.)
  • That same month, Indonesia temporarily banned TikTok for containing “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy.”
  • In February 2019, Bytedance settled with the US Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting personal information from children.

Foreign invasion

  • Bytedance is leading the charge into the Indian app ecosystem.
  • In 2018, Chinese apps dominated India’s app rankings, occupying five out of the top 10 slots.
  • That same year, both TikTok and Helo were both in the top 10.
  • As of May 8, TikTok is the #1 free app on iOS, according to AppFollow.io.
  • China and India have long had their geopolitical differences in relation to allies as well as ongoing disagreement about borders. In April 2019, India politicians accused Bytedance’s Helo of interfering in elections.

A young user base: The most recent publicly available data from Jiguang shows that as of February 2018, Douyin’s users in China were:

  • primarily female (66.4%),
  • relatively young (<19: 20%, 20-24: 32.8%, 25-29: 27.9%)
  • located in less affluent areas (Tier 1 cities: 8.23%, Tier 2: 34.39%, Tier 3: 21.51%, Tier 4+: 35.87%)
    Note: Douyin is only available on Chinese app stores.
  • Data from GlobalWebIndex shows that as of January 2019, 41% of Tiktok users were in the 16-24 age range.
  • According to our sources, TikTok’s user base in the US is not very affluent nor well-educated.

Monitoring content

  • Around 10,000 people, or 25% of Bytedance’s workforce, are devoted to content monitoring.
  • 15 out of 31 positions posted in 2019 under Operations/Editing on the company’s China jobs site are for international markets.
  • 1 out of 81 positions on TikTok’s LinkedIn jobs search page is content-related. The position is at Bytedance HQ in Beijing.
  • After the ban in India, Bytedance said they pulled 6 million videos from TikTok.
  • The company also introduced three new content moderation features for the India market: Filter Comments, Anti-Bullying Guidelines, and integration with cVIGIL, a mobile app allowing citizens to report violations of the election code of conduct.

Protecting minors: According to statements provided to us, the company has a wide range of protection features:

  • Safety Center, a page with tools and resources “to promote a positive and safe environment for our community”
  • Parents Portal, an overview of the app’s privacy settings and tips for parenting in the digital age
  • Anti-Bullying, a special page in the Safety Center
  • Parental Guardian Platform (currently piloted in Japan), similar to Apple’s Screen Time feature. Parents can set limits on usage and content presented to their children.

An uphill battle: While seemingly innocuous, even content and entertainment companies like Bytedance will have to answer difficult questions as geopolitical tensions increase. Not only are data privacy and data jurisdiction increasingly important national security issues, but I wouldn’t be surprised if foreign products like TikTok are somehow implicated in the upcoming US presidential election.

With contributions from Tony Xu, Bailey Hu and David Cohen