The huge popularity of Chinese social media apps with the Indian audiences and the potential of havoc they could unleash has set the alarm bells ringing at the offices of Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY).
To combat the menace of fake news and to clamp down upon possible illegal activities like terrorism, child pornography, blasphemy, etc, the IT ministry has now stepped into action and come up with a draft regulation to make the owners of such platforms responsible for the content ‘that flows through their networks.’
The new rules are aimed at apps which have an Indian user base of more than five million and run on user-generated content (UGC). Such apps will now be required to establish an office in India and appoint a senior official who will be answerable in case of any ‘legal hassles that could arise from the nature of the content on the apps,’ as per a Financial Times report.
Growing Popularity of Chinese Apps in India
Chinese apps like TikTok (earlier known as Musical.ly), Like, Vide Video and Helo have become very popular with Indian users.
Such sites and apps, if allowed to have a free run, can be used to incite mob fury, spread hatred and cause law and order related problems. WhatsApp, in particular, was identified as the culprit behind several mob lynchings in India last year.
“What prompted our proposals is the problem with risky and criminal content. The things that worry us are who takes responsibility for the content? Who moderates it? Do we want those apps to be a vehicle for terrorism or pornography? No,” said a senior official with the Indian government.
The new proposals now require such site owners to deploy “automated tools for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content.”
Makes sense too, keeping in view that these sites and apps have been weaponized by anti-social elements for nefarious purposes.
“When the potential is there for misuse, it would be naive to imagine [these apps] can’t be misused,” said S Gopalakrishnan, a senior official at the electronics ministry
India: The Most Lucrative Market For Mobile Apps
It is important here to know that India is not the first country to have questioned the operating style of developers/companies behind such apps. Earlier in 2018, Indonesia too had banned (although temporarily) TikTok, an app allowing users to share short videos, citing concerns over sharing of inappropriate content.
As per recently introduced regulations, China, too, expects short video apps to review every piece of content that is shared through their channels and requires the app/site owners to be responsible for any harmful content being shared thereupon.
Infact, it was because of increasing regulations on their home soil that the Chinese app developers shifted their focus and targeted the huge Indian smartphone user base. With over 400 million smartphone users India is the second fastest growing smartphone market in the world. The exploded adoption of entry and mid-segment smartphones, along with low price high-speed mobile internet connectivity has resulted in a sudden rise of app downloads and app usage.
For TikTok, the video-sharing app with more than 500 million users in the world, for instance, India is the single largest market. Nearly 39% of its users are based in India.
Helo, another UGC vernacular social media app launched only last year, already has more than 13 million users in India. The app which shares content on various issues like parenting, farming, entertainment and politics plans to extend its user base to 25 million this year.
More than 65% users of Like, another social video app like TikTok, are also Indians.
Even more worrying is the fact that the data shared across these apps is being stored on their servers located in China. As per the new rules, the Chinese app owners may soon be required to store their data about Indian citizens within the country.
Making all such sites, whether Chinese, Japanese or American, accountable and empowering the law enforcers to penalize them in case of violations is the need of the hour.