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Can Tiktok find its way back to India with a changed name?

ByteDance's new trademark application suggests that TikTok, the short video platform that India banned over a year ago, could

A year after its ban in India, TikTok, the popular short video app, is looking to re-enter its second-biggest market, according to a new trademark application that ByteDance filed earlier this month.

Tipster Mukul Sharma had tweeted on Twitter that TikTok’s parents had filed a trademark for TickTock with the Controller General of Patents, Designs, and TradeMarks on July 6 (1). As per the post, the description of the service states, “hosting multimedia entertainment content, hosting of multimedia and interactive apps.”

Although there has been no formal comment from the firm yet, an online report from The Print (2) cited a source from ByteDance that the company is keen on resuming its operations in India, especially after introducing the new IT rules. In 2019, the company appointed its chief nodal and grievance officer in India since it is essential for any intermediary platform in the country.

Many tech giants such as Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and numerous other local players have launched their own versions of short video platforms since the ban of TikTok.

PUBG and Shein also Made a ComeBack; Why Not TikTok?

It is worth noting that earlier this month, South Korean developer Krafton rolled out BattleGrounds Mobile India, the India-specific rebranded version of PUBG Mobile, which was banned in the country last year as part of the Chinese app ban (3).

The Battlegrounds Mobile India had hit 40 million users in the pre-registrations on Google Play for Android, and over 20 million participated in the game’s early access launch. The game went live for pre-registration on May 18 on Google Play Store. The developer Krafton also reiterated that it had severed ties with China-based Tencent for their return to India. If TikTok is looking for a return in India, it will also have to find a way about its security concerns, for which the government had banned the app last year.

Shein is an e-commerce app based in China which the Indian government banned in June last year. Reportedly, it is also making its way back to India, but not as a full-fledged app (4). Instead, it is a part of Amazon during the Prime Day sale later this month. Notably, the Amazon Prime Day sale is scheduled to take place on July 26 and 27.

And despite its ban in India and rising scrutiny against the app, TikTok remains popular globally. Recently, it has been downloaded over three billion times worldwide. TikTok is the fifth non-game app to ever cross the three billion install market as per the latest Sensor Tower data. The other apps which have reached over three billion downloads since January 2014 include Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger (5).

As per the reports, ByteDance has applied to Class 42 of the Fourth Schedule to Trade Mark Rules 2020. It is meant for “scientific and technological services and research, and design-related to it, research services, industrial analysis, computer software and hardware design and development.”

Moreover, media reports also suggest that ByteDance has been in talks with the government of India to bring back TikTok in India. The company has even agreed to make necessary changes and has assured officials that it would comply with the new IT rules.

As for now, it seems that all the developments are in the early stages, and the parent firm needs to determine how to fend off allegations over security concerns because of its links with China.

For perspective, Krafton has reiterated several times that it has no ties with Chinese Tencent and developed a separate offering for India, BGMI.

But unlike BGMI, which has very limited alternatives in the country, TikTok or TickTock may have a hard time regaining popularity in India. It is especially if its offering remains limited to Indian content with no access to international content. Moreover, since its absence, players like Instagram Reels, Chingari, and MX Takatak have grown immensely (6).

Why Must the Indian Government Stop ByteDance?

Even in our story, PUBG Mobile Possible Relaunch in India, published in early May amid the rising speculations of PUBG making a comeback in the country, we had said that even if Chinese-based companies change their hands, they are still based in China. If any banned company can manage to operate by floating a new name and company, anyone can do it. The Indian government must not allow it.

PUBG rebranded itself and made a comeback in the country as Battlegrounds Mobile India. And one must note that the game has not sought any formal permission from the Indian officials before launching the game in the country (7).

As per the responses of MeitY, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, to RTI applications, filed by Dr. Gaurav Tyagi, a critic and an assistant professor at JNU, the Indian government could not stop the game from launching in India.

As per the RTI, the IT Ministry stated that it has no role in granting permission to enter PUBG or a company or app in the country.

And now, TikTok is using the same route to “re-enter” India, with modified names. Unlike the gaming app developed by a Korean company Krafton, we still hope that the comeback of TikTok or TickTock is more difficult since a Chinese firm owns it.

It is also worth noting that it is not the first time that the Indian government has banned TikTok; the app was previously banned in early 2019 for a short time for exposing Indian children to pornographic and explicit content, boycott calls, and other privacy concerns (8). And thanks to our Carry Minati, India wanted to ban TikTok again last year amid the nationwide pandemic resultant lockdown.

Notably, earlier this year, in February 2021, TikTok had also reduced its staff in India, a move which many, including us, perceived as India permanently banning TikTok and ByteDance giving up on its second-largest market (9). But now we know it is not the case.

Even at that time, we stated in our story, TikTok India Lay Off, Permanent Ban, And Why it’s Good, that the India digital ecosystem is democratic with a flurry of platforms flocking our devices every day. Even though India has never refrained its people from information flow by restricting them, the TikTok ban was justifiable since its alleged user data practices can hurt its national interest.

TikTok and The Risks of Chinese Ties

According to a CNBC report (10), former TikTok employees warn about TikTok’s parent company based in China. They said that ByteDance has access to TikTok’s user data and closely watches its American company in LA product development and decision-making.

Notably, TikTok was launched worldwide in September 2017, and later, in November 2017, its parent firm had purchased for 1 billion USD, and they merged in August 2018. Within a few years, it amassed a user base of over 1 billion, especially among young adults and teens (11).

Last year, the former US President, Donald Trump, had sought a ban on TikTok in the country or forced a merger with a domestic firm. The Trump administration expressed national security concerns over the app’s Chinese ownership. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, stated that TikTok “might be feeding user data to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Notably, TikTok has always denied those claims – for obvious reasons, it told CNBC (12), “We’ve never given user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.” According to the company’s semi-annual transparency reports, it doesn’t have a single reported request from the Chinese government for user data.

In June, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order, revoking Trump’s order on the apps unless it finds a buyer from the USA. However, his order sets criteria for the government to evaluate the risk of apps connected to overseas adversaries.

The former employees who spoke to CNBC also stated that the boundaries between ByteDance and TikTok are almost non-existence. If we look at TikTok’s privacy policy statement (13), it says that the company can share its data with its corporate group, which includes ByteDance. “We may share all the collected information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliates of our corporate group,” reads the privacy policy.

However, TikTok has consistently downplayed such important access, “We have rigorous access controls with strict approval process which our US-based leadership team overseas, including our technologies such as security monitoring, and encryption to safeguard sensitive user data,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement.

However, according to Bryan Cunninghan, a cybersecurity expert and executive director of the Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute of the University of California, it can expose users to information requests by the Chinese government. “If the Chinese legal authorities or their parent company asks for the data, users have already given them the legal permission to turn it over.”

Moreover, Chinese companies and citizens must “support, assist, and corporate” with the state intelligence work as per China’s National Intelligence Law. Another Chinese rule, the 2014 Counter-Espionage law, also has similar requirements (14).

According to the former employees, the close ties between TikTok and ByteDance go far beyond user data. But TikTok downplays the connection.

As per cybersecurity experts, there are several risks of TikTok being closely interwoven with its China-based parent.

One of the most significant risks is how the Chinese government can spread propaganda or influence the thinking of its users. It could be done with short-length videos that the Chinese government may want to show to Indians, Americans, or anyone. It could be factual or misinformation. The company can also censor certain content.

It has already happened multiple times. According to The Guardian report published in September 2019 (15), the company had censored videos mentioning Tibetan independence, Tiananmen Square, and the religious group Falun Gong. Following the report, TikTok stated that it is no longer practicing such censorship and has recognized that it was wrong.

In November last year, Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s UK Public Policy Director, admitted during a parliamentary committee hearing that the platform has previously censored Chinese government critical content such as Uyghur Muslim’s forced labor in China. Afterward, Kander stated that she misspoke during the hearing.

According to the CEO of Fortanix, an encryption-based cybersecurity firm, Ambuj Kumar, anytime the Chinese government has control over a platform such as TikTok with billions of users and getting popular, it offers them the power to feed our mind what we should think, what we consider right and wrong.”

A bigger and often less discussed concern is the Chinese government’s track record regarding its widespread surveillance and human rights. The US tech giants use big data for ads, whereas China uses it for intelligence.

People who decide to use TikTok should do it with the understanding that they are probably handing their data over to a Chinese firm subject to the Chinese government, stated Bill Evanina, Evanina Group’s CEO, which offers companies consultation for risk-based decisions about complex geopolitics.

On the other hand, some experts don’t see TikTok as a threat. As per Graham Webster, the editor in Chief at Stanford-New America DigiChina Project, most of the data TikTok collects would easily be collected by the Chinese government via other services. China doesn’t need a consumer app to exploit user data. It is all subjected to legal debate.

Using TikTok Also Has Its Advantages

TikTok offers a huge range of benefits to its users, including:

  • Wholesome entertainment: The major advantage of the app is that it offers great entertainment. It assures a video-sharing community that is raw, real, and has no boundaries.
  • Instant Publicity: TikTok offers an excellent platform for people looking to be famous without specialized talents or skills. It allows common people to make interesting music videos and gather instant publicity.

Advantages of TikTok for brands and businesses:

  • A huge target audience base
  • Excellent user engagement
  • An abundance of local micro-influencers for location-specific collaborations
  • Branded marketing channel and brand partnerships like YouTube
  • Benefits of TikTok ads

Cons of TikTok

Using TikTok also has its disadvantages.

Here are some cons of TikTok for users:

  • Cause nuisance
  • It is addictive hence waste of time
  • Often used as a harassment tool
  • Inappropriate content

Disadvantages of using TikTok for brands:

  • It is not budget-friendly
  • Creative limitations
  • High risk of running your brand reputation compared to other platforms
  • Can’t track longer-term performance
  • Difficult to link TikTok videos back to business website

The Choice is Yours

As we see, when it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of using TikTok for both business and personal use, there is every con for a pro – both holding their respective application and weights for particular users and brands.

Whether we use TikTok or TickTock for fun or a genuine career, this application comes with dangerous consequences. If you ask for our opinion, we believe that the app has done more harm than good.

But then again, TikTok is not substantially different from Facebook and any other major social media platform. There are certain risks of giving up personal data on TikTok, but anyone who has a presence on social media has similar risks. Nothing is outstanding about TikTok except the fact that China owns it.

Hence, we believe that it is up to you to decide whether you want to be part of TikTok or not. Moreover, there are still some ways users can mitigate potential risks on the platform like:

  • Avoid oversharing
  • Keeping the account private
  • Not allowing other users to find you
  • Not allowing users to interact with you or downloading your videos, etc

Wrapping Up

There are several ways TikTok can assure India that their data won’t be misused.

Its first step would be to be more transparent about its collection process as it can help it go a long way when it comes to gaining credibility. TikTok should be clear about what data it is collecting, where it is storing that data, for how long, and which employees of which companies can access the data.

According to the TikTok information sheet (16), it stores the user data of the US in Virginia and has its backup in Singapore with strict controls on employee access. Notably, the company has also stored the data of Indian users in Singapore (17).

The company has not specified which user data it collects, “TikTok app is not unique in the amount of collected information compared to other mobile applications.” It further stated that it stores user data “for as long as needed as it offers with the service” or “as long as it has a legitimate business purpose in keeping data or subject to a legal obligation to hold the data.” The company also stated that users could ask to access or delete their information, and TikTok will answer the request as per the applicable law.

If ByteDance documents and attests everything, it has a better shot at explaining to the Indian government, regulators, people, and other interested parties about its position. However, if the company is unwilling to offer real clarity, it would be something for people to be concerned about.

And as we discussed in our story, India’s Ban on Chinese App Consistent with the Constitution?, instead of focusing on TikTok or other China-based apps, the Indian government needs to make specific and strong privacy regulations and policies to ensure the safety of Indians from all tech companies.

The best solution for India is to implement comprehensive privacy protection for everyone to protect Indians from American, Chinese, and other overseas companies.