I’m scrolling through Facebook and I find that my niece, who is a college student, has shared what can only be considered a rape meme. This is just one of the several sexually explicit memes that she shares on a daily basis. She might not be a teenager, but some of the memes make me wonder: Does she really find these rape jokes funny? Clearly, her friends do.
I refrain from passing judgment or calling out any of this, and move on. But one thing is clear: the internet is a place where many youngsters are very comfortable expressing their sexuality in a way that not all of us can comprehend or even accept, no matter how liberal or progressive we might consider ourselves.
So what is too much freedom on the internet and what can be considered as ‘safe’ humour? I don’t know about the Facebook memes I see from my niece, but clearly, one platform where the pranks were seen as going too far is TikTok, which has now technically been ‘banned’ in India. You can no longer download it from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store in India. The ban comes after the Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench passed an interim order banning downloads of the same in view of the fact that the app promotes pornographic content and puts the lives of children in danger.
The petition against the app alleged that children were vulnerable to sexual predators on the app and that a 15-year-old girl even committed suicide because her grandmother scolded her for using the app. It also talks of how the app is being used to create comedy videos and pranks, but adds that these are privacy violations.
While the court has now appointed an Amicus Curiae to further examine the implications of the app in India and will hear the matter again on April 24, the ‘ban’ on TikTok does raise some serious questions.
One is around what this ban entails. If you have the app, it will continue to run and there are no problems as such. For those who want to try it out now, the APK files are readily being shared online and don’t be surprised if ingenious minds find new ways of sharing and downloading the app. The internet always comes up with unique workarounds. So even if there are children on the app they will likely continue using it, unless of course their parents forcefully delete the app from their phones.
The other issue is that it is assumed that TikTok videos are limited to the platform. But TikTok content creators share these videos on other platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. So the consumption of ‘TikTok’ content will continue to happen, even beyond TikTok’s huge reach.
But the TikTok incident sets a dangerous precedents on Internet apps and their usage in India. Should we assume that in future any other popular app could be banned because of similar arguments? After all child pornography or any other illegal sexually explicit content is not just limited to TikTok.
WhatsApp was used to share videos of the Pollachi gangrape victim. There have been several reports of how rape videos are being sold in Uttar Pradesh for as low as Rs 10 and in many cases, the videos are shared then on WhatsApp, which remains the biggest messaging medium in India. Sexually explicit content, rape memes and other disturbing content can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
This is not to say that these companies are not doing anything to remove this content or tackle with the problem of child pornography. Rather this problem is a hard one to solve, and just banning downloads does not address it in any way. People will move on to the next app that goes viral and the sexually explicit content will inevitably follow.
The ban also assumes that only a few platforms are a source of the problem and ignores the fundamental nature of the internet. The internet is not just Facebook or TikTok or WhatsApp. There are several other websites where people can go and find some of the most horrible content and then share it to the other platforms. To single out one app as a source of the problem as has happened with TikTok is worrying.
The TikTok ban also raises questions about the future of tech policy in India. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) is already working on new rules for intermediaries, which would put a lot more onus on companies to monitor content beforehand, and assumes that automated monitoring and AI will solve the problem.
This is easier said than done and that in many cases, companies will say the technology is just not there. The ‘safe harbour’ that many companies would have relied on especially when it came to user-uploaded content could soon be gone if these rules come into place.
Finally, the court order asks if the central government plans to enact a statute like the United States where there is a Children’s Online Privacy Act to protect them from becoming victims on the internet. This is certainly pertinent and worth considering. But then India is yet to get even its user data privacy bill.
As more and more Indians come online, many of them via their smartphones with data prices being dirt-cheap, access to the internet is unfiltered and unrestricted. In many cases, children are better at figuring out technology and the internet compared to their parents. Several surveys in India from McAfee have shown that parents are not fully aware of the online risks for their children. Putting an effective policy in place to protect children online would be just the first step in making the internet safe for children. But does this mean that internet freedoms should be sacrificed? That approach is unlikely to work.