How social media apps have raised the government's hackles over cyber safety

We spoke to experts on how the government is cracking the whip on social media apps like TikTok, Helo, and what they can do to comply with cyber security norms

e4m by Dolly Mahayan
Updated: Jul 24, 2019 8:41 AM

Last week, The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) issued notifications to popular social media apps like Tik Tok and Helo, raising concerns over objectionable video content surfacing on these apps. Chinese company ByteDance owns both the apps. The government asked the company 24 questions, including why the minimum age for users has been fixed at 13 years and also how the company monitors, collects and share user data.

The app earlier came under  scrutiny from the Madras High Court, which directed a ban on downloading it, after a man filed a suit saying the app was ‘degrading culture and encouraging pornography.’ However, the ban was lifted later.

In a joint statement, TikTok and Helo said, "Our continued success in India will not be possible without the support of our local community. We take our responsibilities to this community seriously and welcome this opportunity to fully collaborate with the government to meet and exceed our obligations."

According to media reports the app has removed 60 lakh videos for violating content guidelines in India and ByteDance is also reportedly in the process of setting up a data centre in India for TikTok and Helo. Their Indian users’ data is right now stored on servers in Singapore and the US.

The government is getting tougher on privacy concerns and misuse of data. Apps like PUBG, Wechat and many others have also faced the heat.

Cyber expert, Amit Dubey feels the government is coming down heavily on these apps because data can be misused in many ways. “These apps normally sell this data to big players. They use this data for profiling the users and eventually target them for various types of legal and illegal services. Once a user is profiled, it becomes easy for any hacker to hack his mobile or to manipulate his opinion in digital world,” he says.

“The concern from the government for this data is due to the anti-national activities being conducted in the name of fun and freedom of speech. These videos are not limited to entertainment now, but are widely used to run an agenda targeting a specific community or set of people, which could be dangerous in long run.”

What can the government further do to keep a check on such misuse?

“The government must come with detailed instructions, law and regulatory network for all the apps operating in India. After that if any app fails to comply with Indian laws then same must be banned, irrespective of public Impression,” says Virag Gupta, a Supreme Court Advocate and Cyber law Expert.

Deep Mehta, Co- Founder, Digichefs, opines, “The whole digital and app ecosystem is fairly new and legislations around the same can be termed ‘weak’ as of now. There has to be a learning curve to every new technical ecosystem and the app ecosystem has one too.”

“In this phase of identifying the wrongs that apps could trigger, the only way to go forward is by penalizing or warning or suggesting improvements and building a safer ecosystem for the future,” he added.

The government has sprung into action and is preparing new rules for such apps so offensive content and misinformation can be curbed.

What can app owners do to avoid situations like this in the future?

According to Mehta, “User Generated Content [UGC]' is a must for app owners today. Given the bad name that platforms like Facebook have already acquired over debacles like Cambridge Analytica, you can no longer pull yourself away from these responsibilities. Ensuring that unwarranted content doesn't blow out of proportion and influence reader's decisions is a whole operations unit every business owner needs to manage.”

Gupta adds, “The RBI has issued instructions for data localization by payment service companies. In a similar manner other apps should also keep data in India servers. Apps should not illegally sell, share, and transfer the user's data to other platforms. They should not allow children below 13 years in their platforms. For adult content children below 18 should not be permitted.”

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