Just a few days ago, barnstorming Chinese app TikTok made an emphatic statement by announcing it will set up a new data centre in India worth $100 million. The announcement was made in the wake of a whole host of headaches that have threatened the complete shutdown of the service in India.
For those of you who haven't followed the scorching career of this app phenom owned by Bytedance -- one of China's most prized private companies valued at around $75 million -- TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows users to create 15-second clips often set to music, much like Snapchat and the now defunct Vine. It has been the number one app on the worldwide App Store for five straight quarters, according to The Guardian. In what seems like a blink of an eye, the service has garnered 700 million users globally, out of which nearly 200 million are in India, making the country a top priority for the company.
The problem however, is that the app often shares sexually explicit material involving children. TikTok has acquired the reputation of being a magnet for pornographers and online sexual predators who reportedly try and convince social media-crazed children, that are desperate to add followers, to engage in the kind of behaviour that would put a smile on Jeff Epstein's face through the app's comments section.
The Federal Trade Commission has already fined the app $5.7 million for collecting data of under thirteen year olds without parental consent. A BBC investigation found that TikTok was not able to suspend the accounts of people trying to lure teenagers and children with sexual messages.
See also: WhatsApp caps message forwarding to five instances to fight fake news
However, it is the live-streaming abilities of the service that seem to hold the biggest danger.
"We know that a worrying number of children are being contacted via live-streaming apps, such as TikTok, by adults who use them as a gateway to groom and harm young people," a spokesperson for the UK charity NSPCC told The Guardian. "Our research found that that a quarter of 40,000 children (seven to 16-year-olds) have live-streamed online with someone they have never met, and one in 20 children had been asked to take their clothes off."
In April of this year, the Madras High Court banned new downloads of the app over a suit that claimed that it was promoting pornography. It was subsequently reinstated after promises were made to introduce safety measures. Then, a week or so ago, India's technology ministry threatened to pull TikTok's shutters down again because of alleged anti-national and anti-social content, data privacy issues, and once again its propensity for providing an unsafe platform for children. The High Court sent them 24 questions surrounding these issues to answer which caused the Chinese app to come up with its $100 million data centre "solution".
Will this be enough? Data centres, as Quartz pointed out, are dependent on notoriously irregular power, infrastructure potholes, and rigid telecom policies. Since opening the data centre, TikTok has introduced new safety features that include new notification controls and a device management tool that prevents hacks. But the simple fact is that the humongous number of users on TikTok combined with the sizzling pace of the app's growth makes it almost impossible for all of its content to be continuously screened and regulated. No matter how frequently inappropriate content seems to be expunged, copies will keep resurfacing.
Moreover, the nationalist Indian government just doesn't seem to have an appetite for this sort of thing. Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi, told the Financial Times that ByteDance should be very worried.
"Both the judiciary and executive seem to be looking at ByteDance more closely than other companies, or at least using it as a very visible example of what is wrong" Gupta said.
So despite its phenomenal rise in India and its appeal to marketers who are able to use TikTok to reach users in smaller cities --which is where the next boom of internet users will come from -- the Chinese app may very well go the way of its other deceased video-sharing app brethren if it is unable to protect children by cleaning up its user base as well as content.
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