Outlawing TikTok May Not Impede Journalists

but US and India bans could set a risky precedent

Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence in Hyderabad on February 14, 2020. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)

By Madeline Earp  (CPJ)

HAVANA TIMES – “Allison, can Trump ban TikTok?” Dave Jorgenson, The Washington Post’sself-described “TikTok Guy” asks in an August 3 video on the app. His colleague Allison Michaels responds: “The answer is yes, but how he can do it is kind of complicated…”  

It would be a typical exchange between journalists, but for the surreal setup: Jorgenson is standing over a birdbath, asking questions of Michaels, whose face appears in the water’s reflection, like a fact-checking oracle. This kind of silliness is common on TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app which lets users edit and upload videos under one minute. 

TikTok might be a nontraditional avenue for delivering news and analysis, but the app was gaining traction in the US media — mostly as a tool to reach younger consumers — when President Donald Trump issued vague executive orders August 6 to prevent it and the messaging app WeChat from operating in the U.S.should they remain Chinese-owned. The orderscite the need to prevent China’s Communist Party leaders from accessing data about Americans using the apps, as well as shut down avenues for censorship and disinformation. It’s not clear how they would be enforced or under what authority, according to digital rights advocates atthe Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Restrictions on TikTok have also been raised in Japan, and rejected in Australia, according to news reports. But a similar ban is already in place in India, highlighting the implications for journalists when a platform for digital content is shut down — even one for seemingly inconsequential videos.

Trump’s August 6 order “Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok,” in fact, cited India’s ban, which CPJ found was issued with limited transparency, and has effectively shut down a nascent platform for sharing news. TikTok’s record of defending its users and their videos from governments is far from perfect, and journalists and technologists are probing its data protection practices for evidence of abuse. But so far, there is little to distinguish it from the other social media services used, for better or worse, by journalists around the world. Journalism generally suffers when social media is shut down, as CPJ has noted during temporary disruptions in countries like ChadBrazil, and Sri Lanka. And in parts of the world like Belarus where news websites are censored, social networks remain a lifeline for independent reporting — a key reason that China blocks those that don’t comply with state demands. Nationwide TikTok prohibitions would, should they proceed, represent a departure for India and the U.S. — one which could normalize bans with far more direct consequences for the press.

Could Facebook be Next?

“My argument is basically that it could be Facebook next,” Chinmayi Arun, founder of the Centre for Communication Governance at the National Law University, Delhi, told CPJ. “The U.S. should reconsider following India, because its own companies have the most to lose from a global move towards banning foreign digital platforms.”  

Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of Indian media website Medianama, told CPJ that Twitter was more relevant for journalists in India than TikTok. However, he said, “In terms of the process that’s being used, I don’t think there’s anything that protects Twitter.” 

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued a press release on June 29 announcing the outlawing of TikTok, WeChat, and 57 other Chinese-owned apps that it said were “engaged in activities … prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” The move came in the wake of clashes between Indian and Chinese forces on their shared border, triggering nationalist statements by Indian politicians and a popular boycott of Chinese goods, as the BBC and others reported at the time.

Local news reports said 47 more apps were added later. Among several software tools on the list was Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, and web browser and news aggregator apps that a former employee has accused in an Indian court of censoring and inventing news, according to Reuters

When CPJ tried to open TikTok from a device in India in August, the app displayed only a notice that it was “in the process of complying with the government’s directive.” 

A TikTok representative who refused to be quoted by name characterized the Indian ban as an “interim order” in an emailed statement to CPJ. The representative said that ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, has a 2,000-person team in India “committed to working with the government to demonstrate our dedication to user security.”  TikTok has separately said on its website that it was “shocked” by the U.S. order. 

TikTok’s massive reach in India allowed it to “act as an untraditional media outlet,” as Nitish Pahwa observed in Slate. The app has been downloaded more than two billion times worldwide, with 30 percent of those installations in India, compared to 8 percent in the U.S., according to April estimates by Sensor Tower, a firm which tracks app store data. 

Prior to the ban, several Indian news outlets had sought to tap this market, particularly to promote coverage of entertainment and pop culture, but also to package public interest reporting for new audiences. This month, CPJ found dormant accounts operated by mainstream newspapers including The Indian ExpressTimes of Indiaand broadcaster Times Now. “The custodial death of two men in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district has sparked massive outrage in state over police brutality,” reads the caption to the final June 28 video posted by news and opinion website The Quint. Hindi-language news channel Aaj Tak and news weekly India Today were among those to have set their accounts to private since the ban, making past posts unavailable beyond India as well as within it. Others, like the Uttar Pradesh-based CNN-News18 network, appear to have simply deleted their TikTok accounts. 

Journalists have not widely protested TikTok’s loss — indeed, on June 30 the Working Journalists of India staged a public rally in support of boycotting Chinese “goods and media.” The app has sometimes had an unsavory reputation, based on reports of violent and sexually explicit content. The Madras high court even attempted to ban the app in response to a petition on those grounds in 2019 but the ban was swiftly overturned, according to local news reports.  

“We were experimenting with TikTok and never put any real effort into it,” Nandagopal Rajan, the new media editor at The Indian Express, told CPJ by email. “We have over a dozen social media handles, but focus primarily on Facebook and Twitter.”

In any case, journalists might hesitate to defend a company accused of censorship and data security violations. ByteDance is headquartered in China, where CPJ has reported for years that social media companies are subject to government censorship orders and wide-ranging security laws that could see information about people who use the app passed to Chinese state agencies on request. 

CPJ sent an interview request and questions to ByteDance’s press email in August but did not hear back before publication.

ByteDance has acknowledged censoring videos in the past, telling The Guardian newspaper that TikTok guidelines had asked moderators in global markets to remove or hide videos on topics considered politically sensitive — including topics sensitive in China, like Tiananmen Square — prior to May 2019. “As TikTok began to take off globally last year, we recognized that this was not the correct approach,” the company was quoted as saying. Social media hashtags associated with 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong barely registered on TikTok when The Washington Post searched in September, though a BuzzFeed News investigation found no evidence that posts were being removed. Censorship concerns are valid, though not exclusive to Chinese-owned apps — CPJ has documented Google’s attempts to implement censorship on Chinese products, and Apple and Microsoft censor information within China, as Wired reported last year. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have documented censorship beyond Chinese borders on both WeChat and the Japanese-owned messaging app LINE

In India, the IT Ministry focused more on security, charging TikTok and the other apps with “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India” — the charge that appears verbatim in U.S. President Trump’s August 6 executive order

Citizen Lab has documented WeChat surveilling users in China and beyond, but the case against TikTok is less clear cut.TikTok is not available in China, though Chinese state control over Douyin, ByteDance’s similar mainland Chinese app, has been established: investigative website Coda has documented the disappearance of Douyin videos about China’s persecuted Uighur minority, while Chinese public security officials operate Douyin accounts under a cooperation agreement with ByteDance, according to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

TikTok’s privacy policy says its users’ personal data is stored in Singapore or the U.S., but may be shared with a parent company or affiliate. 

For journalists in India concerned about local access to data, it’s worth noting that Indian state agencies issued TikTok with 302 requests for user data between July 1 and December 31, 2019, according to the company’s own transparency report, which says it complied with 90 percent. The U.S. issued 100 total requests with 82 percent compliance over the same period, according to the report. The transparency report lists no requests from China, either for content removal or user data. (TikTok’s transparency report does not mention Douyin, which broadcasts its own monthly tally of sanctions against illegal accounts and content; the July 2020 edition said it had taken action against over 82,000 videos and 265,000 accounts in June.)

Exactly what prompted the Indian government’s concern isn’t clear, according to Arun. “Part of the trouble is that everyone’s only seen the press release,” she said, which “references reasons, but doesn’t actually make the case for them.” The legal order itself was issued under Section 69A of the IT Act, she said — part of an opaque censorship framework that CPJ has documented before. “Those orders are confidential.” 

CPJ requested comment from the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology by email but received no response before publication.

On August 11, The Wall Street Journal raised questions about one of TikTok’s data collection tactics affecting Google Android users before November 2019. Otherwise, the company “wasn’t collecting an unusual amount of information for a mobile app,” the Journal reported, though it was encrypting data in a way that obstructed independent review without obviously increasing security. The TikTok spokesperson told CPJ that the Journal’s reporting “misrepresent[s] our intentions for using encryption. Encryption is a common way to prevent malicious behavior linked to fraudulent activity.” 

Security researcher Baptiste Robert separately reported on Medium that based on initial research, the app was “not exfiltrating unusual data.” 

“TikTok looks like all the other social networks,” Robert told CPJ by email from France. “Not good for privacy, but unfortunately quite standard.”  

Legislation and standards that apply to all platforms, regardless of origin, are needed to resolve those privacy issues, as commentators in both the U.S. and India have pointed out. Blanket bans may not solve such underlying problems, but they do threaten to limit how journalists engage their audience — and vice versa. 

“Before the lockdown, on a stroll around Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi one would see four or five TikTok videos being shot,” Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa said, referring to the city’s bustling commercial district. “Outside cities, small town India was using it. I love that these sections of society were coming online.” 

As some Indian TikTok users mourn the loss of the app, in the U.S. Trump’s battle against it continues. A week after his first executive orders, he said ByteDance has 90 days to get rid of assets that support TikTok in the United States. 

CPJ India Correspondent Kunal Majumder contributed reporting from India and CPJ China correspondent Iris Hsu contributed reporting from Tapei.