Can Koo Be King?
Forbes India|March 12, 2021
Forbes India delves deep into the new bird app and its content moderation policy to find out if the migration from Twitter will stick
Aditi Agrawal

At the height of the back and forth between the government and Twitter about the latter’s refusal to block accounts of journalists and activists, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal publicly threw his weight behind another app—Koo. On February 9, Goyal tweeted, “I am now on Koo. Connect with me on this Indian microblogging platform for real-time, exciting, and exclusive updates. Let us exchange our thoughts and ideas on Koo.”

Within two days, the platform with a yellow bird for a logo started seeing 20 to 30 times the number of downloads it used to have otherwise. Torn in a number of directions due to the “sudden surge in the number of users”, the team has barely slept since then, Aprameya Radhakrishna, CEO, and co-founder of Koo tells Forbes India. This is the first time the 10-month-old platform had seen such “crazy spikes”. “Before this, [there were] many small, manageable spikes but no big spikes,” he says. One was when the app won the AatmaNirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge in August 2020; another when Google Play Store listed Koo as one of the Best Everyday Essentials apps from India in December.

A Twitter alternative, Koo has about 3 million downloads across iOS and Android, claims Radhakrishna. Its 40-member team has been “trying very, very hard that all users have a great experience”. The sudden growth means that the team is finding it difficult to make sure that the servers are up.

The aim is clear—to give every internet-using Indian a voice on the internet. “We saw that any other app was only giving voice to English-knowing Indians. When it came to Indian-language-speaking Indians, who are not so comfortable with English, there was no way they could express themselves freely because there was no app for it and that’s where we operate,” says Radhakrishna. Koo is currently available in six languages—English, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Marathi. It will soon introduce 12 more Indian languages. All its Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers are located in Mumbai.

“We are not yet making revenue. We are a 10-month-old company looking to grow our user base,” says Radhakrishna. The app is available to everybody across the world except in Europe. This is because of the General Data Protection Regulation that Koo is in the process of complying with, he adds.

Content Moderation

The world’s largest social media platforms—Twitter and Facebook— are still struggling with moderating content online. Koo’s sudden popularity can, in fact, be partly attributed to Twitter and the government’s diverging opinions about what content should be taken down from a platform and what constitutes free speech.

While Koo has a content moderation policy, it is not yet available online. “We are a young company; we are in the process of getting these things together formally,” says Radhakrishna. But there are certain lines that are obvious to him—“if there is a mention of self-harm or if there is incitement of violence, that is where there is the possibility of a loss of human life, that is when it is critical to act and to abide by the law of the land”.

Radhakrishna did not say whether the platform would take the content down itself or if it would wait for a court order or a Section 69A blocking order from the government.

Bigger platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google release biannual transparency reports wherein they detail the number of government requests and court orders they have received. They also detail the volume and type of content that they have taken down using automated tools and that which they have restored. Indian messaging app ShareChat, too, has released one transparency report.

Koo also plans to do that. “We will always be 100 percent transparent about all our dealings. There will be nothing hidden. We want to assure users that they can use the platform safely. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are multibillion-dollar companies and hence they have everything in place. Being small is not an excuse, but we just need a little time because all this has come suddenly and we will gather ourselves and make sure all of this is complied [with],” Radhakrishna adds.

Is Koo Taking A Reactive Approach To Content Moderation?

Currently, when a user reports a Koo (equivalent of a tweet) to the platform, it is reviewed by human community managers.

The reasons for flagging a Koo are mostly the same as on Twitter—‘I’m not interested in this Koo’, ‘It’s suspicious or spam’, ‘It’s abusive or harmful’, ‘It expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide’, and ‘Others’. Koo, unlike Twitter, does not list ‘It displays a sensitive photo or video’ or ‘It expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide’. Misinformation is not listed as a reason for reporting on either of the two platforms.

But at scale, Koo will need to use technology, else moderation will not be possible. “We will use technology to flag certain usage of words and then have a human look at it in certain cases,” says Radhakrishna.

He points out that until the explosive growth of Koo, it did not face the problem of misinformation. “We were at a scale where we could handle it. Right now, we will have to put in some processes so that we can handle the scale. We currently depend on the community to report problematic Koos for our ream to look at. We will start working with fact-checkers to make sure we know exactly what we are doing,” he says. Koo has so far neither tied up with any fact-checkers nor does it allow users to flag content for misinformation.

At a regulatory level, in 2018, the government had proposed amendments to the rules governing intermediaries under the Information Technology Act, but they have not been notified and brought into effect. The proposed changes would make it mandatory for any intermediary to use automated tools to “proactively identify and remove or disable public access to unlawful information or content”.

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