It is difficult to argue that video sharing platforms such as TikTok and Likee - and for that matter other social media platforms - have the potential to cause a great amount of harm.
Last week, a group of 11 TikTok users, including their ringleader Rafizul Islam Ridoy was arrested for their involvement in a sex trafficking ring. They used the platform to lure young women aged 17-22 by offering them a chance to be in a shoot for a TikTok video. Instead, they were kidnapped, and trafficked to India to work in sex trade.
A flurry of such recent crimes have raised serious questions on the purpose of these platforms, mostly used by young adults.
In December 2020, two teenagers, Shishir Bepari, and Junaid Islam Fahim, were arrested for luring a young woman by introducing themselves as TikTok celebrities, and committed a reprehensible series of actions which resulted in the young woman being gang-raped.
Furthermore, in August 2020, Bangladeshi TikTok sensation Mohammad Yasin Arafat, known better by his TikTok handle, Opu Vai, had been arrested as a result of a violent outburst; a result of his rise to TikTok fame.
Reacting to Ridoy's arrest, Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion chief, Abdullah Al-Mamun, once again raised the thorny issue of shutting down a social media platform - this time Tiktok - to rein in the ever-increasing crimes relating to social media.
Over 80% of the country's internet users access different social media sites, which are somehow to blame for different types of criminal conduct, he said.
Easier said than done
Ever since the Chinese video-sharing platform's inception in 2016, it has enjoyed a meteoric rise in global popularity, with almost 700 million users worldwide as of 2021. TikTok's business model has also inspired similar apps, such as Likee, which has also garnered a significant worldwide following of over 150 million users.
Off late, however, Tiktok has been in the crosshairs of authorities not just in Bangladesh, but a number of other countries.
Pakistan followed through on a promise to reduce sexually explicit content when earlier this year the government banned TikTok for what it describes as 'immoral' content. According to the government's definition, 'immoral' content is construed by nudity, blasphemy and obscenities.
Other countries and private businesses have also imposed bans on TikTok.US President Donald Trump moved to ban TikTok in the US over concerns about the app's ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance, although the ban has been halted in a legal dispute between TikTok and the US government.
India banned Tiktok completely in 2020 following the border clashes with China to 'to protect the data and privacy of its 1.3 billion citizens'.Tiktok has also been banned in Indonesia in the past following concerns over "pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy."
However, shutting down a social media site that has experienced such a rapid rise in popularity is easier said than done. When the Bangladeshi government banned YouTube and Facebook in the past, many users easily found their way around with a Virtually Protected Network (VPN) to access these sites; something that would be just as easy to do with TikTok and Likee.
Second, and more importantly, it raises questions about the government's commitment to free expression, in an era where we are promoting the brand Digital Bangladesh. This is in clear contrast to Article 39 of the Bangladeshi Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
Where should we draw the line?
Digital security has become a rising topic in the discussion of free speech in Bangladesh. Even before the ratification of the Digital Security Act (DSA) in 2018, the Bangladeshi government had not displayed any hesitation to ban certain social media platforms in the past.
The ban on specific video-sharing platforms could theoritically result in a reduction on the sex trafficking and other crimes, however, there is no denying it is also an impediment to free speech laws in Bangladesh. This raises the question: Where do we draw the line between free speech and digital security?
The majority of users of these apps, it is safe to say, do not engage in criminal activity, and thus a large number of law-abiding citizens and users would have a social media platform taken away from them through no fault of their own.
Furthermore, the rise of influencer marketing has made its way into the Bangladeshi social media scene as well. TikTok and Likee generate a considerable amount of advertisement revenue for its platform, while contributing to the promotion of Bangladeshi products. As a consequence, a potential ban on these apps would also result in a loss of income for many of the users of the app who have gained a significant following and use it to promote products or services and earn from it.
Radyna Karim, who has amassed a significant following on TikTok and Likee understands the risks that these apps pose on society, including young women like herself, but maintains that survival of these apps in the Bangladeshi social media sphere is imperative in order to not hamper the livelihoods of many content creators.
"I have faced death and rape threats on a daily basis, I had people digging up my address, my parents' names, what companies they own, and other things that are very private," said Karim. She laments the "racist, sexist, homophobic, and toxic" culture that has made its way to the platform, but at the same time highlights its necessity for many.
"The audience of these apps are people of a certain age, social class and education level," Karim continued. "I personally think that TikTok [and Likee] should not be banned because it helps out so many people who are less fortunate."
These apps are also known for their edu-tainment videos; short informational, yet entertaining videos which captivate the short attention span of younger minds.
TikTok and Likee does indeed create an environment in the cyberspace that is conducive to illicit and unsafe behaviour, such as the sex trafficking incidents that have been taking place across Bangladesh in the recent months and years.
On the other hand, it creates a space for many individuals, the majority of whom are young digital citizens, to share and create content that is not only informational, but entertaining as well. This coupled with the fact that it adds an opportunity for users to earn a living through the app, the harm does not outweigh the good, in Karim's opinion.
"I think TikTok [and Likee] can be unsafe, but it is also a saviour to so many people's lives," Karim said.
Given the circumstances, it would be well worth the time of authorities to explore avenues to strengthen cybercrime fighting capabilities of law enforcers, without imposing an outright ban on the platform. As one regular TikTok user commented, it would be tantamount to removing the head to remove a headache.
There are examples in the past of countries directly negotiating with TikTok to increase its vigilance on the content being posted by citizens of the country so that such crimes are kept under check. In fact, Indonesia actually lifted its ban on TikTok after the company pledged to dedicate exclusive manpower to monitor content being uploaded from Indonesia.
Aveir Alam is an undergraduate student at Occidental College, living in Los Angeles, California.