OPINION: The Path To A Moderate Approach On TikTok

A recent petition presented before the Kenyan Parliament has sparked a heated debate on the future of TikTok in the country. The Chinese social media app, boasts a staggering 54% user engagement rate in the country, making Kenya the leading country globally in terms of active usage according to the recently released Reuters Institute Digital News report 2023. The platform has become a hub of entertainment and information as well. However, the largely unregulated content on the app has become a source of concern. The petitioner, Bridget Connect Consultancy CEO Ben Ndolo, has raised alarming issues about explicit content and its impact on Kenyan society’s moral values.

Moses Wetangula, Speaker of Kenya’s. National Assembly, acknowledges the app’s popularity among youth but points to the unsettling content that poses a threat to cultural and religious values. Ndolo’s plea draws attention to the lack of proper regulation, leading to a surge of offensive content. He also highlights the dangers of addiction, potential disruptions to education, and mental health concerns among students. Moreover, concerns about the misuse of personal data have also been raised.

Kenyan law permits citizens to petition Parliament to address matters within its jurisdiction. The petition process, outlined in the Petition to Parliament (Procedure) Act, involves several steps, culminating in a parliamentary vote and presidential approval for a petition to become law. As the deliberations unfold, it’s evident that a critical conversation about TikTok’s future is underway.

Finding A Middle Path.

The call to ban TikTok in Kenya has set the stage for a nuanced conversation. While concerns about inappropriate content must be addressed, a blanket ban poses its own set of challenges. Such a move could infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed rights, including free speech, expression, and access to information. It might inadvertently open doors to curtailing freedom of expression under the guise of morality. Furthermore, the creative ecosystem nurtured by TikTok shouldn’t be overlooked. Countless content creators, who produce clean and legitimate content, rely on the platform for their livelihoods. It’s essential to avoid punishing the entire community for the actions of a few.

Ezekiel Mutua, chairman of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya, suggests a more tempered solution. He proposes the establishment of a regulatory body funded by the company itself, aiming to monitor content for appropriateness. This suggestion is quite comprehensive as it even anticipates the financial expenses such an undertaking would incur. However the public administration and policy specialist, being an outspoken moralist may not be acting solely in the interest of moderation. Questions can be asked whether every other social media platform will be required to set up its own complimentary regulation agency.

Some lawmakers, notably Majority Leader in the National Assembly, Kimani Ichung’wah advocate for a middle ground. Their approach seeks to balance the positives of social media with its potential negatives. Ichung’wah’s view highlights collaboration between governments, tech companies, and users to devise regulations encompassing content moderation, data privacy, transparency, digital literacy, and youth empowerment. Part of a statement he made earlier this week reads: “Banning platforms like TikTok, ignores their benefits and the industry they have created. Instead, a balanced approach involves collaboration between governments, tech companies, and users to establish regulations that ensure content moderation data privacy, transparency, digital literacy, and youth empowerment.”
This approach acknowledges the benefits of digital engagement while ensuring responsible usage and safeguarding opportunities for the youth.

While some proponents of the TikTok ban point to other nations that have taken this route (India, Iran, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) it’s important to note that many other countries have adopted a more tempered stance. In the European Union, for instance, recent legislation echoes approaches seen in the USA and Canada. These regulations focus on content moderation and data protection rather than outright bans. In these jurisdictions, government officials are not allowed to have the app on their officially issued gadgets.

The TikTok debate in Kenya encapsulates the broader struggle to find harmony between culture, technology, and societal norms. While concerns about explicit content and its effects are valid, a balanced approach must prevail. Banning TikTok outright could stifle creative expression, limit opportunities, and infringe on constitutional rights. Instead, a more measured response, as proposed by individuals like Ezekiel Mutua and Kimani Ichung’wah, could yield more favorable outcomes.