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Unjustified TikTok ban

Unjustified TikTok ban

The government decision to ban TikTok, citing disruption of social harmony, family structure  and goodwill, has left everyone puzzled. There is no clear answer as to why the government abruptly shut down the popular video-sharing app. This move contradicts constitutional provisions and international commitments to safeguard freedom of speech and expression.  

While the government has the authority to ban apps affecting national security, social harmony, and law and order, the lack of clear reasons for the TikTok ban is problematic. Currently facing 10 writ petitions in the Supreme Court, and more in the pipeline, the government's decision is under scrutiny. Advocate Dinesh Tripathi, one of the petitioners, warns that the government may extend the ban on other apps as well.

The misuse of TikTok has been a persistent concern for government agencies, prompting continuous discussions between TikTok and the Nepal government regarding content regulation.  On 3 November, TikTok representatives presented a detailed working process, moderation and model of collaboration to the Nepal government. Earlier, an internet safety summit was organized in the presence of TikTok representatives, civil society and government officials. Similarly, TikTok has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Nepal Telecommunication Authority to create awareness about the misuse of the platform.

Also in June, TikTok provided access to the Trust and Enforcement Tool to Nepal to ensure the reporting of content that is in violation of local laws. TikTok says it has since removed around three million videos by Nepali users for violating community standards. It appears that the government's desire for complete control over the so-called objectionable content led to the ban.

According to one government source, the ban was prompted after TikTok refused to remove all the videos that were flagged by the government.  The government's decision lacks transparency, with no specific reasons shared with the public. Three major political parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center)—have by and large remained mum about the ban. Minister for Information and Communication Technology Rekha Sharma has suggested that there was an all-party consensus to ban TikTok. 

The silent position taken by major parties backs Sharma’s claim of all-party consensus. While some Congress leaders including Gagan Kumar Thapa, Bishwa Prakash Sharma and Shekhar Koirala have opposed the decision, the party President, Sher Bahadur Deuba, has not said anything.

In an all-party meeting held a few days ago, leaders expressed their concerns over the use of TikTok to disturb social harmony and religious tolerance. Following the discussion, the government came up with social media guidelines, asking the public to avoid the misuse of social media. Observers say, major parties may have agreed to ban TikTok after new political parties and rabble-rousers were heavily featured on TikTok clips where they defamed politicians and government. Security agencies have also expressed concerns about the misuse of TikTok to create social discord. A senior security officer says there were several videos on TikTok that created discord and disharmony among various religious and ethnic groups. 

But former deputy inspector general of Nepal Police, Hemanta Malla, says the government’s ban on TikTok cannot be justified. He notes that  there are far more objectionable contents on other platforms. Some experts say geopolitical factors may also have influenced the government’s decision to ban TikTok, as there have been global concerns about TikTok's potential threat to data security.  The ban has particularly hit small businesses, especially those led by women. For them, TikTok was a crucial platform to promote their products and brands. The app also helped to promote Nepal’s tourism destinations.

After India along with 59 Chinese-owned apps  banned TikTok in 2020, Nepal was the largest market for the platform.  The ban by India came shortly after a clash between Indian and Chinese troops at a disputed Himalayan border killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured dozens. 

As TikTok does not want to lose its user base in Nepal, its representatives are in Kathmandu to negotiate the lift on the ban. Experts suggest regulating the platform instead of a complete ban, but government officials argue that Nepal lacks sufficient mechanisms for content regulation. The plea for social media giants to open offices in Kathmandu echoes the need for better regulation rather than outright prohibition.

According to news agency AP, TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, has faced scrutiny in a number of countries because of concerns that Beijing could use the app to harvest user data or advance its interests. 

Countries including the United States, Britain and New Zealand have banned the app on government phones despite TikTok repeatedly denying that it has ever shared data with the Chinese government and would not do so if asked, according to AP.  It has 1 billion uses globally. Nepal has banned all pornographic sites in 2018. 

TikTok, owned by Chinese technology company Bytedance, has long maintained that it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government. It says a project to store American user data in the U.S. will put it out of China’s reach and it disputes accusations that it collects any more user data than U.S. social media companies do, according to AP.