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India Bans TikTok of China, Tightening Digital Borders

The global internet is fracturing. And people like Anusmita Dutta are paying the price.

Ms. Dutta, 24, joined TikTok three years ago and now has more than 350,000 followers on the video app. From her home in Kolkata, in eastern India, she records funny skits, monologues, slice-of-life sketches — all stuff, she says, that people can easily relate to. She also finds videos from every corner of the earth using the app’s “Discover” feature.

TikTok makes her feel connected to the wider world. Which is why India’s decision this week to ban TikTok and scores of other Chinese apps was such a disappointment.

“Real talent came from this app in India,” Ms. Dutta said. Seeing it come to a sudden end was “obviously disheartening.”

TikTok, the first Chinese internet service to have a truly global fan base, is rapidly falling victim to China’s worsening diplomatic relations around the globe. It is yet another sign that the digital world, once thought of as a unifying space that transcended old divisions, is being carved up along the same national lines that split the physical one.

Tensions between India and China have run hot ever since a border clash in the Himalayas this month left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The government in New Delhi announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps late Monday, saying they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.

India’s decision strikes at a number of China’s leading technology companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. But perhaps none will be more affected than TikTok and its Beijing-based parent, ByteDance, which has built a huge audience in India as part of an aggressive and well-funded expansion around the world. TikTok has been installed more than 610 million times in India, according to estimates by the data firm Sensor Tower. In the United States, the app has been installed 165 million times.

China itself began putting up walls within the global internet years ago. By blocking Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, Beijing created a controlled environment in which homegrown upstarts could flourish, and where the Communist Party could keep a tight grip on online conversation.

Now, though, Chinese tech businesses are trying to make it big overseas at a time when distrust of the Communist Party is growing in Washington and other Western capitals. The tensions have ensnared ByteDance as well as companies in computer chips, artificial intelligence and more. Huawei, the Chinese maker of smartphones and telecom equipment, has been largely cut off from American technology suppliers and is fighting to defend its business from accusations that it is a Trojan Horse for Beijing’s cyberspies.

ImageThe Bytedance Technology booth at the Digital China exhibition in Fuzhou, China, in 2019.
Credit…China Stringer Network/Reuters

Governments worldwide are also becoming more interested in reclaiming control over digital speech and commerce, adding to the internet’s increasingly Balkanized landscape. The European Union has taken a tough line on overseeing American giants such as Apple and Google, forcing them to adapt to local rules.

Dev Khare, a partner at the venture firm Lightspeed India, acknowledged that India’s app ban was a populist, “feel-good” step in some ways. He does not, however, see it as a bolt out of the blue.

“It’s something that China did a long time ago,” Mr. Khare said. “If this is what China does to the rest of the world, then the rest of the world has the right to do it to China.”

As of Tuesday evening, some TikTok users in India were receiving error messages when they tried to access the app.

Nikhil Gandhi, the head of TikTok for India, said in a statement that the company had been invited to meet with Indian officials and respond to the decision. He added that TikTok had not shared information on its Indian users with the Chinese government or any other foreign government.

When it comes to using the consumer marketplace as a geopolitical cudgel, China is far more used to giving than receiving.

After an N.B.A. executive tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests last year, Chinese state-run television canceled broadcasts of basketball games. After police in Canada arrested a Huawei executive in 2018, Beijing halted shipments of Canadian canola oil. After a committee in Norway awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, China curbed imports of Norwegian salmon.

India buys a wide variety of goods from China. But by targeting Chinese-made mobile apps, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone after a sector of special importance to Beijing. China’s giant internet companies are running out of new internet users to win over at home. They see in India a chance to apply lessons from their growth in China to another huge market brimming with potential.

Indians, in return, have taken to many Chinese apps with gusto — TikTok in particular.

Ankush Bahuguna, a TikTok user in New Delhi who is in his late twenties, said other platforms might be able to scoop up the app’s fans in India if TikTok becomes unavailable. But it would take time for them to develop into something as special as TikTok.

“TikTok is one of the most accepting platforms when it comes to embracing different people,” Mr. Bahuguna said. “I’ve never seen a platform celebrate so many male belly dancers or male makeup artists or gay couples. Literally anyone.”

Credit…Manjunath Kiran/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

TikTok’s ease of use made it a uniquely democratic platform for users, he said. “It empowered them in a way where you don’t really need to speak English to be a content creator or have a fancy camera.”

One such creator is Saddam Khan, 22, who works as a porter at a New Delhi railway station and has more than 41,000 TikTok followers. He was carrying two briefcases on his head for a customer when he heard that India had banned the app.

“I just wanted to throw the bag away and cry,” Mr. Khan said.

Having such a large following on TikTok has not yet changed his life, he said. But he is sad that his shot at fame now seems dashed.

“There is a ripple effect in TikTok,” Mr. Khan said. “Boys from small villages become overnight heroes. It changed their lives. Their status in society grew.”

Indian officials have long had suspicions about the app. Last year, it was removed from Indian app stores after a court ruled that the app spread pornography, though it was later reinstated. Indian politicians have also criticized the platform for hosting hateful and inflammatory material.

Executives at Indian internet companies largely cheered the government’s move against their Chinese competitors this week. Naveen Tewari is the founder and chief executive of InMobi, a company in Bengaluru that operates two digital platforms, Glance and Roposo.

As tensions between India and China worsened over the past few weeks, video creators in India had already begun to rethink their choice of platform and migrate to Roposo, Mr. Tewari said. Now that TikTok seems down for the count, he is eager to capitalize.

“The first thing we’re doing is just to assure the millions of users of TikTok that they have a platform that is homegrown,” Mr. Tewari said. “They can absolutely come there and continue their entertainment that they always had, probably in a slightly more responsible way.”

Watchdog groups, however, have noted with concern the Modi government’s tendency to use sweeping policy instruments for political ends.

“In terms of being a singular act of web censorship, it’s impacted more Indians than any before,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, which promotes digital liberties in India.

The current political climate in India is one in which nationalist sentiment is likely to be accommodated above other considerations, Mr. Gupta said.

“Any kind of public policy response which is premised on grounds of national security needs to emerge from well-defined criteria, which seems to be absent here,” he said.

Sameer Yasir contributed reporting.