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TikTok and the Perils of a Policing Policy

At the outset, let me clarify that I have no personal experience with any of the technological illustrations I’m about to use in the following piece. I stay far away from mobile games (mostly because I’m terrible at them) but I do defend the right of the more competent, to have them and unabashedly play them. This article is not a case of sour grapes; it is however an observing of sorts of a rather troubling pattern of policing that percolates down to something as seemingly trivial as mobile phone games.

Social media platform TikTok (all right, it’s not really a game) has faced severe backlash in the recent past for a variety of concerns: soliciting pornography, violating child safety guidelines, providing a platform for sexual predators, amongst a host of others. The Karnataka State Women’s Commission first sought a ban on the TikTok app before the Chief Minister of the State, citing that the app encouraged pornographic content, harassment and ‘misrepresentation’.

The Madras High Court entertained a petition seeking a similar ban on that grounds that the TikTok app degraded culture, encouraged pornography and pedophilia, instigated social stigma, worsened mental health among teenagers and broadcasted explicit disturbing content. As a result, the Court ordered that the TikTok mobile app was not to be downloaded and that its videos were not to be telecast. Mr. Thamimun Ansari, Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly had demanded a similar ban of the app as a result of the obscenity of its material, at which time the State Assembly agreed to such a ban.

I hardly delight even in the cringe factor of TikTok’s more innocuous content, but a ban is not the most effective way to counter the more troubling aspects of the platform TikTok. There has to be a more sustainable solution to countering an online malaise than a mere ban. For instance, to resolve the general dubiety over child pornography and pedophilia and the possibility of sexual predators on the online prowl, the Madras High Court in their order, called upon the Union of India to formulate a legislation similar to the United States’ Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, to prevent children from becoming victims of cyber crime. Of course, legislations come with their own set of troubles, but this is, at the very least, a systematic, multi-dimensional approach to resolving an array of issues related to child pornography and pedophilia and sexual predation. Such approaches could include legislative policy, accounting for the State to work in tandem with social media companies when it comes to content regulation. There should be legislative guidelines in place for such regulation, which is not restrictive moralistic policing but which acts as an effective barrier to graver problems like sexual harassment, access to pedophiles and predators, and the publishing of defamatory, pornographic or explicit content. There cannot be a ban on explicit content merely by virtue of its being explicit. Any regulatory approach necessarily has to be worked out between the State and the social media platform.

Given how prolifically technology expands, band-aid solutions like bans don’t create any credible benefit. If anything, they are illusory and misleading. There is no doubt that TikTok is flippant about toeing the line other social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat or even the controversial Facebook, for that matter, largely stick to. Even the possibility of social media platforms being used for pornography, pedophilia, harassment and sexual predation is troublesome—it is important to demand better accountability from our social media platforms.

An interesting solution, is to not just passively flag inappropriate content, but to actively create in-app safety and formulate community guidelines which are stringently adhered to. A higher standard of accountability along with a more vigilant user-base organically negates the band-aid ban solution, because we have a community which is self-regulating. The issue with a ban-happy policy is that it is narrow and unaccepting of the true variety of issues that can arise. Moreover, it’s a questionable solution at best.

Leaving aside the constitutional concerns of the judiciary implying a legislative policy of sorts, it points to a general trend of policing which doesn’t accomplish very much. Banning TikTok is a stop-valve solution—do we have the infrastructure to tackle the next variant that comes along? Our institutional shortcomings are plenty—our courts are hypervigilant and often tread right over the policy divide into legislative terrain, our lawmakers are lax and our laws lag far, far behind the pace of our technology. However, there is little stopping us from becoming more vigilant in the way we use our mobile apps and more aware of the possibilities of misuse that a platform, however innocuous it might otherwise be, opens up.  

Priyanshi Vakharia is the Program Officer, Feminist Justice at One Future Collective.

Featured image: TikTok

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