TikTok was in the news recently for its ban by the Madras High Court that was subsequently revoked on 24 April.
The app was temporarily taken off from the Google Play Store and iOS App Store for less than a week, when the ban kicked in on 19 April. Helena Lersch, Director, Global Public Policy, TikTok, gave a freewheeling email interview to tech2 (Firstpost) on the matter, where she answered a range of questions such as the impact on the Chinese social media giant because of the raging controversy and what damage control steps have been taken.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
tech2: The Madras High Court has lifted the ban on TikTok. What was your first reaction on this?
Helena Lersch (HL): We are glad about this decision and it is also greatly welcomed by our thriving community of over 200 million users in India, who use TikTok as a platform to showcase their creativity. While we're pleased that our efforts to fight against the misuse of the platform have been recognised, the work is never "done" at our end. We are committed to continuously enhancing our safety features as a testament to our ongoing commitment to our Indian users and their safety.
tech2: The HC ban was to prevent pornography and paedophilia. How is the company geared to address the HC's concerns and the petitioner?
HL: At TikTok, the safety of our users is a key priority. We are constantly working towards improving our mechanisms by introducing industry-leading safety features such as increased privacy settings, in-app reporting, comments filter, strict >Community Guidelines, a >safety resource centre to ensure user safety and a positive in-app environment for our users to showcase their creativity and talent.
We in no way endorse or promote content that is a violation of its comprehensive >Community Guidelines. For instance, we recently removed six million content videos that were violating our community guidelines. We will continue to follow a rigorous mechanism to remove inappropriate content and accounts from the platform.
We have proactively included features such as notification banners added to videos that may be inappropriate for younger audiences. Besides, there is a Restricted Mode and Digital Wellbeing function within the app that allows users to control time spent on TikTok, as well as to limit the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for minors.
tech2: How are you ensuring the privacy of your users?
HL: Along with having complete control over their privacy settings which allows users to approve or deny followers and restrict the visibility of their uploaded content and incoming messages to followers only, our users also have access to in-built protection features such as filters and in-app reporting. We actively work towards giving our users more control over their online presence on the app. TikTok recently introduced a new feature called 'Filter Comments' to give its users the ability to decide on who can comment on their videos. Our users can self-define up to 30 keywords in English and Hindi that they would like to automatically filter out from their comments section.
Earlier this year, we also launched the >Safety Center, a local website that consists of safety policies, tools and resources to equip users with product education and protection measures when using TikTok. It is available in 10 major Indian languages and apart from guidelines, it also links out to two resource pages tackling >anti-bullying.
tech2: You have also implemented an age-gate in India? What more customisation has been done so far for Indian operations?
HL: We have introduced 13 industry-leading safety features that ensure a safe and comfortable in-app experience for our users. The launch of our age-gate feature in addition to the recent takedown of six million videos reinforces our ongoing commitment to ensure that our platform remains a safe and positive space for our Indian users and we discharge our obligations under the Intermediary Guidelines of India, in a meaningful manner.
We are looking forward to introducing more relevant features and initiatives to help Indian users be safe and continue to enhance their experience with TikTok. For example, we will shortly introduce Device Management giving users greater control to manage their login devices to prevent their accounts from being hacked and will also be revamping our notification tab and notification controls, which will make users' digital lives easier.
tech2: Do you think that of all the social media sites, TikTok was singled out unfairly?
HL: We believe that content moderation on user-generated platforms is an industry-wide challenge that we take very seriously. We recognise that no system can prevent all instances of inappropriate activity, but we are committed to continually improving our safety features and localising moderation efforts to ensure a safe, welcoming and positive community environment for our users.
tech2: ByteDance had plans of $1 billion investment in India. What will be the areas of investment?
HL: India is a strategic market for ByteDance, and we're looking at investing $1 billion over the next three years, in line with our long-term growth ambitions in India. We are looking at ramping up local hiring efforts, infrastructure, research and development efforts as well as partnerships.
tech2: Do you agree that the ban in some way has given publicity to TikTok and it is expected that the user base will multiply after it has been lifted?
HL: TikTok is a global platform that caters to millions of users across the world. It already enjoys great popularity across India and has over 200 million users in the country who use the platform for creating and sharing exciting and innovative content. It is a platform for creators and empowers its users by giving them a platform to showcase their talent to a global audience. We are glad that TikTok is available on Google Play and iOS once again. We look forward to continuing serving our thriving community in India and look forward to welcoming new users as well.
tech2: What steps you will now take to adhere to the IT Act 2000 (Section 69A and Section 79) and the rules therein?
We combine algorithm-based moderation technology with a robust human moderation team that covers major Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati and more. We work continuously to make our over 200 million users feel safe and comfortable within the community by empowering them with the right safety tools and resources.
tech2: Have you appointed a grievance officer as mandated by India's IT Act? How can Indian users reach him or her with their grievances?
HL: Yes, in order to better coordinate with law enforcement agencies, we have appointed a Chief Nodal Officer based out of India.
tech2: How did the industry, associations and users support you during the tough period of the ban?
HL: We would like to clarify that this was only an interim takedown from app stores and not a ban. During the time of the takedown, we received an overwhelmingly positive response from TikTok's existing community, who continued to use the platform to showcase their creativity and capture moments that mattered to them.