Every citizen of India is entitled to certain Fundamental Rights installed under Part III of the Constitution of India, 1950. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution enumerates the Right to Freedom of speech and Expression which is bestowed upon the citizens. However, no such legal privilege confers any exclusive immunity on the citizens to visibly exploit the sanctity of a Constitutional provision.

The ensuing article investigates the legitimacy of Google LLC deleting millions of negative reviews about the Chinese social media application ‘TikTok’ from their Android application downloading platform – the Google Play Store in May 2020. The article further explores whether Google LLC is legally empowered to reinforce such a stringent decision and determines whether this action by Google infringes the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Overview

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all nations are racing against finding an infallible cure for the Novel Coronavirus, every other nation is implicitly infuriated at China, since the alleged source of the virus originated from Wuhan, China. Consequently, several nations have incorporated measures to abolish the usage of Chinese goods, and netizens all across the globe have come up with their unique prospects to boycott Chinese products from virtual markets too. A victim of such unfortunate retaliation is the Chinese social media application ‘TikTok’, formerly known as Musical.ly.

Of late, there have been innumerous contentions against TikTok that it promotes circulation of heinously disturbing videos comprising ofdomestic violence, animal cruelty, racism, child abuse, and objectification of women. Assertions concerning the security and privacy features of the application were kindled too.

 On May 26, 2020, the technological supergiant Google LLC removed millions of negative reviews, especially 1-star reviews concerning TikTok from the Google Play Store, and thus the previous application rating of TikTok was reinstated to 4.4 out of 5 from 1.2 previously. This controversial move by Google evoked nationwide outrage and all sorts of negative opinions were speculated alleging Google to be covertly supporting China, Google being a financial beneficiary of TikTok, infringement of Freedom of Speech and Expression, and the like.

Ever since, there have been a plethora of virtual movements endorsing the removal of TikTok from digital application markets such as Google’s Play Store for Android operating systems, and Apple’s App Store for iOS operating systems. Ultimately, on June 29, 2020, the Government of India banned 59 Chinese applications including TikTok in order to uphold the internal security and sovereignty of the nation following the Galwan Valley Clash between the Indian and the Chinese military troops on June 15, 2020.

Backdrop Analysis Of The Upheaval

Albeit the majority of the Indian netizens didn’t possess a positive outlook towards TikTok in the first place, proclaiming the application to be used by unproductive and impractical individuals, the spark to the hay was added when an online feud erupted between renowned YouTube roaster CarryMinati and TikTok influencer Amir Siddiqui. A video uploaded by CarryMinati entitled “Youtube vs TikTok: The End” was released on May 08, 2020, which went viral over the Internet in no time and was hauled among netizens.

CarryMinati, originally Ajey Nagar, efficaciously roasted Amir Siddiqui in his video and took a dig on the futility of the application – TikTok. Ajey Nagar’s video was a befitting reply to a previously uploaded video by Amir Siddiqui and he was incredibly applauded by his fans for such a brutal riposte. In a matter of a few days, CarryMinati’s video, which was about to become the most liked non-musical video on YouTube India, was unpredictably struck down from YouTube without any justifiable reasons which enraged his fans all across the nation.

As a result, every individual supporting Ajey Nagar started giving low ratings to TikTok on application downloading platforms since it was presumed that the video was called off due to the reports of several TikTok users who alleged that the video promoted foul language, evident defamation, and cyberbullying.

Over the course of the next few days, the ratings of TikTok declined substantially from 4.4 a priori. The final nail in the coffin was hammered when TikToker Faizal Siddiqui, brother of Amir Siddiqui uploaded a video that obliquely promoted acid-attacks and rape culture. Subsequently, several lawsuits were filed against Faizal Siddiqui for his inconsiderate actions and his account was suspended from TikTok for violating community guidelines.

In light of such incidents, it was testified that a redundant application like TikTok has no position in a moral and civilized society and it was further alleged that TikTok was nothing more than a propaganda locomotive tool of China’s nefarious expansionist policies.

The Legal Paradigm Of Freedom Of Expression

Freedom Of Speech and Expression

Freedom of expression elucidates the ability of an individual/group to express his or her beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and emotions about different issues devoid of any form of government censorship. In the Indian legal framework, the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is envisioned under Article 19 of The Constitution of India, 1950.

Article 19(1)(a) states that all citizens of India shall have the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. However, Article 19(2) proposes certain reasonable restrictions against the exploitation of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and if the free opinions fail to be congruent and in-line with the four corners of the specified reasonable restrictions, then the right cannot be judicially exercised and nor is it protected with any legal remedy.

On account of Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India and Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India, it was duly established that the right to freedom of speech and expression can only be exercised if they fall within the purview of the four prerequisites envisaged under Article 19(2).

Evaluating The Deletion Of The Negative Tiktok Reviews

Freedom Of Speech and Expression

It is an undisputed fact that freedom of speech and expression is vital for a democracy to flourish in an unobstructed manner. In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, it was adjudicated that every citizen is entitled to intelligibly exercise his rights of making a choice, and such rights are absolutely indispensable.

TikTok was banned in India under Section 69-A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 which enshrines the supreme authority in the State to restrict access to any digital service or information which endangers the national security and sovereignty of India. Since Google LLC is an American organization, it does not necessarily fall within the ambit of the operational jurisdiction of The Constitution of India, 1950.

Therefore, Google cannot be mandated to restore all previously deleted negative reviews of TikTok and nor could the company be legally coerced to reestablish the 1.2-star rating of the application which was previously foreseen on the application page of TikTok on the Google Play Store.

Now, the question arises why did such an esteemed organization like Google delete almost 8 million negative reviews of TikTok to reinstate the application back to its former 4.4 rating? Although we might readily contest that this is a reasonably arbitrary and prejudicial move by Google, we cannot deny the fact that “there are two sides to every coin”. Despite the critical scrutiny, Google had to encounter at the hands of the exasperated Indian netizens, attributable to its provocative move, it must be noteworthy to consider the fact that the majority of the people who posted negative reviews about TikTok did not even download or use the application at the first instance.

According to Google, it removed millions of negative reviews of TikTok as a ‘corrective action’ in light of its authenticity policy since most of the reviews were allegedly posted from fake or proxy accounts and it was unfairly detrimental to the reputation of the application. Therefore, to curb the ongoing spam abuse on its digital application platform, Google intervened in the debacle and took cognizance of the ensuing events. Prima facie, Google’s response looks justifiable since TikTok never compelled any mobile phone user to download the application or to invest in its in-application purchases, so unmerited vengeance against an application seems notably irrational.

So, are Google’s actions an indirect violation of an individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression? To determine the legitimacy of the act, it is crucial to undermining the purpose it served underneath. Since the majority of citizens posted negative reviews about TikTok to extend their support to their favourite YouTuber and solely highlighting the ineptness of the application, it served no fruitful purpose in reality.

 Resorting to create counterfeit accounts to post negative reviews is itself an act prohibited by Google’s policies and is subjected to criminal recourse. So, the modus operandi of the majority of citizens was indeed unjustified and it did not affect the monetary incentives of the application, or China’s economy in any utilitarian way. Since negative reviews do not substantially affect an application’s existing user-base, it is difficult to assess the pecuniary loss suffered by TikTok when it was available in India and was being obliterated with negative reviews at the hands of Indians.

TikTok’s parent company, “Bytedance”, controls 23% of the Chinese digital application market, and in the year 2019, TikTok’s revenue was estimated to be close to $176.9 million (excluding the non-iOS Chinese revenue). Therefore, banning the application was the only resort in order to productively affect its profit margin since India was the second largest user-base of TikTok after China, with more than 323 million downloads in 2019 alone.

Conclusion

Freedom Of Speech and Expression

Freedom of expression in no way enunciates formulating forged opinions about an entity. Not even downloading the application and posting a negative review about it, is not a reliable illustration of demanding justice for infringement of a fundamental right, rather, it is an example of pretense possessing no Constitutional sanction. 

Then what about those citizens who genuinely posted a negative review about the application? Although Google undergoes several authenticity checks in segregating between real and fake reviews, it is conceivable that a few genuine reviews might have been labeled as ‘fake’ and have been possibly erased. However, it is partial to entirely blame Google since most of the digital operations are handled by designated digital algorithms and a few genuine reviews, posted within the time frame of the heated events during which millions of negative reviews were posted against TikTok, might have been prone to be victims of computational fallacies.

In a nutshell, we may conclude that although TikTok’s ratings were altered overnight and the efforts and expectations of millions of netizens were left in vain, we must not fail to identify the lawfulness of our own actions. Even though TikTok is presently banned in India, whether or not we used the application was subjected to our taste and individual preference. It’s an undisputed fact that there were a lot of talented content-creators on TikTok India as well, pertaining to financially weaker sections of the society and TikTokfinally provided them a platform to showcase their genuine talent and earn their means of living.

What the future beholds for TikTok remains a mystery since recently, on August 07, 2020, President Donald Trump of the United States, issued executive orders outlawing all American transactions with Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok and Tencent, starting within 45 days. TikTok has more than 100 million users in the U.S. and a ban in America as well will significantly stunt the prospects of the company since its previous largest user-base (India) has already banned the application.

 The United States implemented this order in light of TikTok’s data collection policies which tend to jeopardize the personal as well as proprietary information of American citizens and such infringement of privacy might enable the Chinese Communist Party to conduct flagrant digital corporate espionage attempts on the American Federal employees. While TikTok has long affirmed that it all stores user data of customers in facilities outside the operable jurisdiction of China, the calls for calm remain inadequate for the concerned world governments.

Since nothing is greater than the welfare and prosperity of a nation, sacrificing one mobile application is a sacrifice too trivial. Nevertheless, arguing TikTok to be promoting unprincipled content is due to the actions of the imprudent users and not the developers of the application. After all, no social media platform is left safe from the perils of human annihilation and no negative review on the Google Play store ever changed the fate of a nation.

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