A major global power decides it wants to ban TikTok. The app is wildly popular in the country, but the government has security issues with China and worries about what TikTok’s owners are doing with data gathered from hundreds of millions of users. Ultimately the government decides to shut down the app, citing national security concerns.
It happened—not in the U.S. but in India. How it happened—and what happened next— offer lessons for US policymakers and TikTok fans alike. While the ban infuriated Indian users, they eventually moved on to other platforms. There was no political backlash, and there were clear winners in the aftermath: Indian app makers and U.S. tech giants Instagram and YouTube.
A TikTok bonanza
Until 2020, India was TikTok’s biggest market. That year, amid rising tensions with Beijing, New Delhi moved to ban the app, which was created by the Chinese tech firm ByteDance. It wasn’t the only Chinese-owned app targeted by Indian authorities: WeChat was also part of the clampdown, along with more than 50 other apps developed in China.
According to the Indian government, all were deemed “prejudicial to (the) sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.”
But TikTok was king – and as in the U.S., there were questions about the potential fallout from a ban. At the time, TikTok boasted 150 million monthly users in India, and more than 600 million overall downloads. The app’s easy-to-use interface helped TikTok penetrate markets well beyond India’s big cities. In small towns and villages, Indians with mobile phones (the country is home to more than 1.2 billion mobile phone connections) had embraced the app with gusto. As in other markets, most of TikTok’s users in India were young, falling in the 18-35-year-old demographic.
The app’s explosive growth was also reflected in its local footprint: the year it was banned, TikTok had an Indian workforce of some 2,000 people.
When geopolitics got in the way
As in the U.S. today, real-world tensions figured in India’s ban. High in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese forces clashed along their de facto border in June 2020; 20 Indian soldiers were killed. It was the deadliest skirmish between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants in decades, and the fighting sparked calls for retribution against Chinese-owned businesses in India.
“Talk about the ban on Tiktok was building for a while before it actually happened,” Nikhil Pahwa, the founder of MediaNama, India’s leading digital policy publication, told The Messenger.
Some local tech bosses joined the calls for a ban; Indian app makers saw a valuable market opportunity if TikTok were to disappear from Indian phones, according to Pahwa. Meanwhile, nationalist politicians made their case against China; allies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Hindu nationalist BJP political party went so far as to say that Chinese apps were infringing on Indian sovereignty.
After the ban: Lessons for the U.S.
To those who say a ban on TikTok cannot work, the India story offers a counterpoint.
In the immediate aftermath of the ban, India’s app makers were the big winners – filling the void by replicating TikTok-style short videos. Roposo, an Indian video-sharing app, saw its user base jump by some 22 million in the 48 hours after the ban was implemented.
And while local media was initially filled with stories of angry Indian TikTok fans, those millions of users appear to have moved on. They migrated to new platforms, and today TikTok has disappeared from India’s digital landscape. The ban included measures forcing app stores to remove TikTok and legal threats against Indian internet operators who failed to block access to the app. All these worked in driving TikTok from the Indian landscape.
There was no political backlash inside India – no discernible change in voting patterns among India’s younger voters. And there was no backlash from Beijing either; China’s official response was criticism for India’s “discriminatory” approach when it came to Chinese businesses operating in the country. But there was no retaliation.
The big winners? U.S. tech
Ultimately, the biggest winners were American tech firms. That’s because most of TikTok’s Indian user base migrated to apps such as Instagram and to YouTube, which began rolling out its own short-video functionality soon after India knocked out TikTok. India is now home to Instagram’s largest user base, with close to 230 million users, compared to just over 143 million in the U.S. In early 2020, when TikTok was still there, Instagram had fewer than 100 million users in India.
“The entity that has benefitted the most is Instagram,” Pahwa said. But he added that no app has been able to “find the scale” that TikTok was able to achieve.
“Anecdotally I think TikTok had a very unique place in the culture around short videos, and that experience has not been replicated,” he added. “You had people in rural India using the app. The growth was organic. No one has been able to do that.”
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