On Wednesday, responding to a public interest litigation, the Madras High Court passed a rather unusual order, asking for ban on downloads of the TikTok social media app. It also ordered the media to stop running videos sourced from the social media app.
Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, the TikTok app allows users to create and share short videos. Over the past year, TikTok has boomed, becoming one of the most popular social media networks in the world. It is also very big in India.
The court found many things objectionable about the app. The bench was worried about “pornography and inappropriate contents” hosted by the app. The app, the bench surmised has “proved to be an addictive one” as a result of which “the future of the youngsters and mind set of the children are spoiled”.
The court was displeased with parody videos on the app, ruling that it is a “violation of privacy” since “nobody can be pranked or shocked or being made as a subject of mockery by any third party”. The court also argued that use of the app could expose children to sexual predators.
Some of these concerns are unusual since they do not break the law. Mocking someone or watching pornography is not illegal. Moreover, the court did not venture to explain how it arrived at the conclusion that TikTok was addictive or under what legal provision an addictive activity could be banned.
While some other concerns are genuine, especially with regard to sexual predators, the court does not offer to explain why it is singling out TikTok. As Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa points out, this is true for a number of internet services. The court also seems to ignore the Supreme Court’s 2015 Shreya Singhal judgment that held that a platform is not legally liable for user-generated content. Moreover, safety needs to be ensured laws and the administrative machinery – not by gagging speech.
The court offers no studies or data to support its actions. The order lists three anecdotal incidents: a man arrested for posting a video of a woman in Chennai, a Mumbai teenage girl who committed suicide after being scolded for using the app and a man who fell to his death while taking a selfie for TikTok. It is unclear how these three disparate incidents could be the basis for the court’s action.
More problematically, the court, by way of argument, presents the case of the Blue Whale challenge, which it said“has its origins from Russia” and was “response for suicide of many youngsters in our country”. However, till now, there has been no concrete evidence of the existence of such a suicide challenge.
The incident highlights a growing trend of knee-jerk, judicial censorship. In March, the Meghalaya High Court held the Shillong Times guilty of contempt of court, angry with the newspaper for highlighting a judgment that provided better post-retirement benefits for judges and their families. Later that month, a Bengaluru court passed an injunction against 49 media houses as well as social media platforms from publishing defamatory content against Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Tejasvi Surya over allegations pertain to sexual assault and misbehavior.
It is the job of the courts to check the abuse of power by the governments. The judiciary exists to protects the rights and freedoms of India’s citizens. In such a situation, when the courts themselves place restrictions on crucial matter such as freedom of speech, a troubling conundrum arises: who will check the courts?