The government’s decision to ban TikTok has sparked a raucous debate. Thira Lal Bhusal of the Post talked to former Deputy Inspector General of Nepal Police Rajib Subba, a cyber security expert with a doctorate in communications and information sciences, on the issue and on the regulation of social media platforms. Excerpts:
What did you make of the TikTok ban?
The government made this decision in haste. It has already endorsed directives on the operation of social media, and it is in the process of constituting a unit in the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to regulate social media platforms. A bill related to this is in Parliament. The authorities were working on all these legal bases, and bases prepared for social media regulation. But, in the meantime, the government suddenly banned TikTok, which is wrong. The right approach is to regulate all such platforms.
But many argue it’s not feasible to regulate platforms like TikTok. How challenging is it, really?
Social media platforms are regulated worldwide. For instance, Facebook blurs certain images if they show violent scenes. It displays the image only if we give our consent. Twitter and other platforms follow similar rules. Such features were added after authorities around the world started pressing for the regulation of these platforms.
Do you think there is something particularly troublesome about TikTok that warranted its ban?
People generally say that many countries have banned TikTok. That’s not the case. Only a few countries have imposed blanket bans. Many have in fact banned government agencies from using TikTok, fearing leakage of sensitive government data. They are concerned mainly because of Chinese involvement in the software. The public can use it even in those countries. One concern is related to data safety and the other to negative effects on social harmony. Our government has cited the second reason for banning TikTok.
The first factor is far more important. But our government didn’t even mention the threat of data breach as they don’t understand it, unlike European and other developed countries. For instance, when I taught at a college in Norway virtually, I wasn’t allowed to contact my students and talk to them through any media other than the one prescribed. They said the data of the discussions should stay in Norway. In Nepal, I teach in a college affiliated to an American university that suggests we communicate only through a WhatsApp group.
Our government says TikTok damaged social harmony but that isn’t substantiated by facts and evidence. You see the same anomalies in other social platforms. A few years ago, the government announced that all porn sites would be blocked, but they are still accessible. Several reports have shown WhatsApp being misused to spread misinformation in India. Nepal police reports show that Facebook Messenger tops the list of platforms used to commit cyber crimes. Then, which one do you block? You can’t stop new technology. TikTok users have now shifted to other platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Reels with similar features. We can’t protect social harmony by banning any one platform.
There will always be anti-social activities, in one or another form. The goal is to minimise them. Once, content on YouTube even taught how to make bombs. Later, they started to regulate it when voices were raised. There is a YouTube channel only for kids. Parents can set their kids’ gadgets in the same mode. This is how we regulate content.
Informal surveys show many people heartily welcomed the TikTok ban. How do you analyse that?
When almost everyone around you is addicted to TikTok, you get fed up. People are making videos everywhere to post on the app. It is happening because we didn’t teach people about the wise use of new technology. Allowing a kid to use TikTok is like allowing an untrained police recruit to use a gun. People should be made aware about the pros and cons of a platform. Concerned authorities should ban the making of TikTok videos in sensitive areas.
What are the specific things that the government, organisations and the individuals should do to better regulate social media platforms?
There are four approaches to social media regulation. In the United States, they have Santa Clara Principles on transparency and accountability on content moderation. As per the principles, each social media platform must monitor the content in its ecosystem. They have to remove any unethical content and give information about the removal. That is accountability and transparency. International companies such as Facebook and Google abide by the principles. They publish periodic reports in accordance with it. This is self-regulation. Such policies can be adopted in Nepal as well.
Second is about platform users. It may be the government, organisations or businesses. They have to formulate self-regulation. If they have certain contents on their page, they have to monitor it because any piece of content may ignite a dispute or violence. Third is self-regulation of individuals. Each person should follow basic discipline about where to shoot a video or use TikTok. State authorities should make people aware about it.
For this, there should be a specific regulatory body. I am for establishing a powerful authority to oversee all these affairs. Such an authority must oversee huge areas. The Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police handles criminal cases that fall under the Civil Code. This unit lacks even minimum human resources. Of around 5,000 incidents of cyber crimes, only around 100 cases are registered and take legal courses. But the government decided to set up a unit under the ministry. To begin with, that is okay too. It can be expanded later.
People are using alternative ways to access TikTok. Does this increase the risk of data leakage?
Yes. When I use Virtual Private Network (VPN), it changes my device’s settings. It’s like keeping the doors open for malware to access my device. When we do bank transactions and other important communications, it gets access to passwords and other sensitive data. So when people take such alternative routes, the vulnerability of sensitive data increases. Paid and trusted VPNs are safe but the number of those using safe VPNs is negligible. Many people use unsafe VPNs, which may further boost the crime rate.
To address this problem, Nepal can also implement Santa Clara Principles. This is possible as the social media platforms are establishing their local offices or designating representatives here. They will come under the tax net and follow the law of the land. Likewise, the authorities should make the stakeholders self-regulate and launch awareness campaigns to sensitise the public. One designated powerful authority is needed to oversee all these matters with a long-term plan.
How competent are existing agencies to manage this fast-evolving situation?
Now, we don’t have any regulatory body to oversee the information technology sector. We do have the Nepal Telecommunications Authority that regulates telecom. The High-Level Commission for Information Technology and the National Information Technology Centre have been dissolved. Therefore, there is a need for a commission or authority to regulate service providers in this sector.
Quite a number of people are now doing business through TikTok. Should they be registered?
They just need to be brought under the tax net. That is enough to regulate them. The electronic transaction bill, which is in Parliament, has relevant provisions.
Will representative offices of social media platforms help with their regulation?
When their official representatives are available here, it will definitely help with the platforms’ regulation. Also, we can make them follow the law of the land once they are registered. They will also cooperate to regulate the content. After all, they want to earn money from here.
Government officials argue that the number of videos posted on TikTok is so high that it is not feasible to regulate them. Do you agree?
People should be made aware. In a small country like Nepal, if authorities take strong action against even half a dozen individuals noted for problematic online content, a large number of people will automatically refrain from posting similar stuff. The authorities should strictly implement the laws.
What is the major problem with TikTok? Is it its loose self regulation or data theft?
Data leakage and piracy is a more serious concern rather than content. Therefore, developed countries including the European nations think of it as a threat. Content regulation is doable if the government forms a body and works with a well-thought plan. For that, the agencies working in this field should be equipped with more human resources.
We also need more legal infrastructure. When the Parliament endorses the Electronic Transaction Bill, it will help regulate businesses run on social media platforms. It takes time but it can be managed once there are laws, a designated authority and sufficient human resources. This is the viable way.
What are the risks for individuals and institutions if data is leaked?
There are many risks. For instance, hackers can get details of banking transactions of those using unsafe VPNs. When they enter a government agency, they can gather data from there. As the value of data has increased, organised criminals have now shifted to cyber crimes. Even those who once sold drugs are now into it. Such groups target critical infrastructures, capture key information and sell them.