Image: Prakash Singh/AFP (Getty Images)
This is the story of a microvlogging app that nobody had heard of two years ago, and how it lured the world’s teens with karaoke, gobbled up their data, ballooned to monstrous proportions, and, finally, became a geopolitical bargaining chip in an escalating feud between the world’s two most-populous countries. The most recent development: India has reportedly banned TikTok, along with 58 other China-based apps, in retaliation for a recent border conflict in the Himalayas that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and the believed capture of many others. As of this morning, the Indian Express reports that the App Store and Google Play have scrubbed TikTok from their Indian stores; some users have reported a notice on the app that TikTok plans to comply with the government’s order and that they can no longer upload videos or scroll through their timelines.
A TikTok India representative has reportedly said that the company has arranged a meeting with the Indian government to “respond and submit clarifications.” The Hindustan Times reports that Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China is “strongly concerned” about the embargo, which also applies to WeChat, Helo, Shareit, and Alibaba’s UC Browser.
A TikTok spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied an upcoming meeting with Indian officials, but told Gizmodo that the ByteDance India team “is committed to working with the government to demonstrate our dedication to user security and our commitment to the country overall.” The line hasn’t worked on the U.S., to whom the company similarly vowed allegiance and denied facilitating Chinese government surveillance. TikTok is under a national security review stateside, and the military has already instructed service members to delete the app from their phones. In March, anti-tech hawk Republican Sen. Josh Hawley proposed an unambiguously titled bill called the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act.”
Indian lawmakers and officials have long been calling for a ban anyway, out of concerns over data collection, exposure of children to sexually explicit material, numerous reports of deaths and injuries, and general anxiety that youths are frittering their lives away on the app. In April, Apple and Google briefly banned TikTok from their app stores in India in accordance with a court that found that the app was being used to spread pornography and potentially expose children to predators. Many citizens have already been deleting the app to protest China’s outsize control over products and services. Earlier this month, Google Play removed a popular Indian app that claimed to allow users to detect and delete Chinese apps from their phones.
TikTok stands to lose a sizable chunk of its existing and potential users; in April, the app data research company SensorTower reported that India is the top source of downloads, making up nearly a third of TikTok’s over 2 billion installs. TikTok’s sixth-most-popular creator, India’s Riyaz Afreen, has over twice as many followers as Hype House attraction Chase Hudson, and about as many as TikTok’s company account.
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The New York Times reported this month that neither country seems likely to back down from the Himalayan border dispute that precipitated the ban. Both countries claim the Ladakh region, which is currently under Chinese rule. The paper reported that neither country seems to want a war, in which case India would be particularly vulnerable.