Cyber security
Featuring many streams that can be described as suggestive at best and pornographic at worst, it is not difficult to find mature and adult content on the Bigo Live.
(L) Logo of Bigo Live, (R) Screenshot from the homepage

If you were to install and open one of the top live streaming apps on Google Play Store – Bigo Live – the homepage would shock you. Featuring many streams that can be described as suggestive at best and pornographic at worst, it is not difficult to find mature and adult content on the platform. But here’s the problem – it is marked safe for children of ages 12 and above on Android.

Bigo Live is a Singapore-based social media platform and is owned by a Chinese company YY Inc. It has over 40 million downloads in India with almost 12,000 official broadcasters in the country. Bigo Live plans to invest $100 million in India over the next three years owing to its growing popularity. On its blog, Bigo Live advertises itself as a launching pad of sorts for those looking for “money and fame”, and aspiring models and actors. It has 300 agencies working for it in India to recruit broadcasters and train them.

However, Nitish Chandan, a cyber security specialist, who investigated content on the app, made some alarming observations about it. Founder of The Cyber Blog India and project manager of Cyber Peace Foundation, Nitish found that as soon as he signed up, he had a flood of options to watch live broadcasts on the app including titles like “xxxvideos” and “erotic fun”. Further, all the popular live streams involved young girls.

In a report called ‘We have a BIGO LIVE problem on the internet and it needs to be stopped’, Nitish elaborates how this app is extremely problematic, often hosts illegal activity, and is a dangerous place for children and youngsters.

Illegal and dangerous content

Apart from videos of girls dancing suggestively, Nitish also found that there were streams on Bigo Live where broadcasters – a lot of them women – were asking viewers to send them virtual gifts, Paytm cash and so on for doing something in return – most often sexual in nature.

“In one of these videos, a girl, while taking a bath asks the viewers to send some gifts promising to come in front of the camera naked when she reaches a target. While some people write lustful and obscene comments, others drop their phone numbers to receive a call back,” the report says.

TNM saw another live stream’s footage, where a scantily clad woman eggs on her viewers in Hindi to transfer Rs 100 into her account to see naked along with her face, which is concealed in the live stream. For Rs 200, she is willing to sexually gratify a person on a personal video call in any way he’d want.

There is also a “versus” mode in the app, where two broadcasters can challenge each other at something and whoever wins, gets the points and rewards that the viewers have given. However, things can get quite ugly here. “In one particular stream where two of such broadcasters are competing to win the round, a child can be seen in the background while this lady in the live stream hurls all types of abuses and touches herself inappropriately to gather more points. Later in her stream she reveals that it’s her 12-year-old son," the report says.

In yet another stream in the versus mode, Nitish found men masturbating live.  

While he agrees that with the consent and will of the end user and broadcaster they can do what they want, Nitish adds that it doesn’t change the fact that this activity is illegal under section 67 of the Information Technology Act. Section 67 makes publishing and transmission of obscene material in electronic form illegal. Further, considering this app is open for teenagers to use as well makes it all the more problematic.

Apart from these, Bigo Live also appears to have live streaming of copyrighted material such as films.

Platform for exploitation

A salient part of the app and its popularity is that broadcasters can earn money on it by encashing the gifts and awards they receive on the platform. “But there is little clarity on how much of this is taken by the platform. In one stream, a woman was crying saying that she has not received her salary. In another instance, a man said he had not received the right amount though he was spending 14 hours a day live streaming,” Nitish says.

Based on more such discussions, he adds that a monthly salary of a broadcaster could range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 4 lakh. This poses two problems.

Firstly, it makes broadcasters do acts that they may be uncomfortable with, or even illegal, in order to make money. “Especially youngsters who are on the platform and do not understand its risks can be driven to push themselves to do certain activities so that they can earn money,” Nitish tells TNM.

Secondly, this could create an incentive for exploitation. In a video of a call between two broadcasters on Bigo Live that Nitish shared with TNM, a woman can be heard telling a man in Hindi that she’ll send him photos of a few girls. He is told to transfer an amount and share his WhatsApp number where a “deal” can be made about which girl he wants and where. It is unclear if the ‘girls’ being referred to – presumably sex workers - are consenting adults.

In another instance, Nitish recounts, a girl can be seen dancing on the live stream. Then she is pulled aside by a hand and another girl is pushed into the frame. Then they are both told to dance together. After this, a third person, a man, comes in the frame and starts directing them as to where they should dance and how. It was again unclear if these dancers were consenting and above 18.

Further, there are also instances of recruiters who claim to be with Bigo Live on Linkedin, looking for only women broadcasters. The job description for one such listing reads, “gossip/love and relation/music/haunted/singing/acting/dancing”.

Lack of accountability

In one live stream Nitish saw on the app, a man requested his audience of 900 to send him gifts and goodies on the app in return for sexually abusing his wife on video. “He goes on to abusing her breasts with her clothes on while she slept,” he writes in the report. And though he reported the account for pornographic content, it was not taken down.  

This happened several times, with several offensive live streams, Nitish claims. Out of 23 reports he made of obscene content on the platform, only three accounts were taken down, Nitish says.

“The problem is that there is little accountability. For starters, companies like Google and Apple need to call these apps out. They need to be marked unsafe for children and labeled 18+,” Nitish says.

This lack of regulation is a problem with a host of other apps, especially ones that are not Indian. And broadcasters know how to exploit it – in some conversations on Bigo Live, Nitish observed users rejoicing that the company does not understand Hindi, otherwise they would have been behind bars.

This is not a problem with Bigo Live alone. Kwai, another short video sharing app rated 12+ for instance, has hundreds of videos of young women dancing suggestively, with plenty of lewd comments on them. Like Bigo Live, Kwai also has its own virtual unit called ‘koin’ which can be awarded to users by viewers and can be encashed. Nitish says that there is a lot of self-generated content here by kids and teens themselves, a lot of which is suggestive in nature.

Screenshot from Kwai. The video on the left features a minor with a suggestive caption. 

“Not only do platforms like these expose children to predators, grooming and age-inappropriate content, but even young adults and older persons who use these platforms are unaware of the illegality of their actions. There needs to be some effort to raise awareness about this among broadcasters as well as viewers. Further, there needs to be better policy framework enforcement on these apps even if they are not based in India,” Nitish says.

TNM has reached out to Bigo Live for a comment and is awaiting the company's response. 

(All Bigo Live screenshots courtesy 'We have a BIGO LIVE problem on the internet and it needs to be stopped’ by Nitish Chandan.)