India's Ban on TikTok and App Store Politics

India's ban on TikTok solidifies the app's position as an unlikely geopolitical force.

TikTok, if you’re the average user, is probably nothing but a wonderland of silly videos and exceptional creativity. But it’s also a global platform with 500 million active monthly users that has risen out of nowhere to become an accidental, sociopolitical powerhouse in just three years.

And it’s the center of some pretty high-test controversy.

Both Google and Apple have blocked access to TikTok in India to comply with an Indian state court’s directive to prohibit its downloads along with 58 other, Chinese-made apps. It’s interesting to note that while the block of these 59 apps was done because the, “apps were engaging in activities that threatened national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India,” (read: data-mining) the block comes after months of argument in which the Indian government argued TikTok encouraged pornography and made its underaged users vulnerable to online predators.

Really, as this month’s terrible border clash inflamed an already historically terrible relationship, the “why” doesn’t particularly matter, and the wholesale rejection of Chinese-made apps was going to move ahead regardless of the real reason.

This is no small loss for TikTok parent company, ByteDance, or for Indian users. At the time of its removal from the App Store and Google Play, TikTok in India had an estimated 120 million monthly active users and had been downloaded 230 million times.

Politics is big business. And big losses. And when you’re talking about countries as massive as India and China, you’re talking about denying access to a billion users in a single stroke.

It’s hard to imagine a social app having such influence people’s lives and fortunes, but TikTok had become an outlet for social thought, political expression, commerce, and upward mobility. The impact was immense. A secondary fallout of India’s ban on TikTok is still to come as hundreds of Indian startups prepare to potentially lose their Chinese VCs.

Immense, too, are the questions of how companies choose to deal with what amount to government requests for censorship. Or invasion of privacy.

TikTok has decided to stop offering its app to HongKong users now that the Chinese government has vastly expanded powers of surveillance over its citizens smartphone users. Apple and Google complied with Indian law and pulled TikTok from their stores because they had no choice, but the idea that governments are dictating what silly videos we can watch or what dark, antiauthoritarian thoughts we can have…rankles.

Of course they are deciding that, all the time. Not just China and India.

Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is “looking at” banning TikTok because it is, “controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” a claim as absurd as it is offensive, as feels like it’s designed to intensify the already bitter sentiment against China and its people since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And yet, while TikTok is certainly not controlled by the Chinese government, it does have a history of worrying security vulnerabilities, and not a great record of fixing them at Apple’s behest.

There’s nuance here, and more political cloak-and-dagger than you’d expect from an app that primarily is used for…well, it does get pretty political sometimes.

So companies like Apple and Google, and even ByteDance, are put in a difficult position. Where it used to be possible to sit on the sidelines (Apple did this especially skilfully), neutrality is becoming impossible as China increases its reach, we increase our paranoia, and tensions become fistfights.

But with every choice a Google or an Apple makes, they’re potentially rejecting other markets by protecting one.

In the early days of the Internet we saw it as a brave new world in which we could all come together as one. That dream is evaporating, at least for now, as we watch global disputes reinforce the very borders the Internet was meant to erase.

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