Ban-happy regulation

September 13, 2020

PTA’s crusade against social media applications often begins with words such as ‘vulgar’, ‘immoral’ or ‘indecent’. However, it is never clear what these terms mean

Two months ago, a Pakistani youth was outraged. Waqar Zaka, a VJ-turned-television host, was ready to attack every regulator in the country. TikTok users were threatening with protests. The worst had happened. The infamous gaming app, PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds), was banned.

The first wave was against the obvious. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had, through a Twitter notification, informed users of the PUBG ban stating that parents had complained of their children’s addiction to this application. The idea behind banning PUBG, an online multiplayer battle game, was that the youth would be liberated from the ‘corruption’ this gaming app propagated.

The second wave was expected. Two very popular applications, Bigo and TikTok were issued warnings. For those unfamiliar with how the apps work, Bigo and TikTok are platforms where users post short videos of themselves performing songs, dances, challenges etc to gain traction. The Bigo management did not respond to the PTA’s call to “remove content” as per the latter’s wishes, therefore the app was banned. TikTok was issued a “final warning” wherein the management was warned about the content posted on the platform. The justification for issuing these warnings was that the content posted on the app was “immoral”, “obscene” and “disrupted” Pakistan’s “societal fabric”. What constituted this ‘moral fabric’ and what ‘disrupted’ it were both best known to the PTA.

The third wave was rather unexpected. Dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr along with several others, were banned similarly for “enabling indecent activity”.

Currently, the PTA is directing YouTube to block “vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude and hate speech” content for viewing in Pakistan. Let it be remembered again that these words and their yardsticks are undefined and unlimited. The regulator can, thus, deem any content “immoral” and have it banned.

The pattern seems consistent – the PTA has become the moral regulator of online content. It assumes that the internet must conform to the Pakistani executive’s standard of morality. Therefore, it expects every social media application to tailor itself according to its choices.

The PTA’s crusade against social media applications often begins with words such as ‘vulgar’, ‘immoral’ or ‘indecent’. However, it is never clear what these terms mean. These terms have subjective connotations and their yardsticks vary for all. What may be vulgar for one citizen may not be vulgar for another. What is immoral for the PTA may not be vulgar for citizens. Lastly, what may be indecent for the PTA may not be indecent for the app management.

Firstly, this discrepancy in what the PTA wants versus the extent to which the app management wants to assert expressive freedom becomes a bone of contention. The PTA places several vague requests to social media platforms and expects them to comply without any independent decision-making or questioning. This is not the first time the PTA has made these requests. The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 initially required social media platforms to set up offices in Pakistan.

The introspective question for PTA is: to what extent does any social media platform regard PTA’s demands as meritorious or worthy of consideration?

But, the introspective question for the PTA is: to what extent does any social media platform regard the PTA’s demands as meritorious or worthy of consideration? Of course, these social media applications benefit from the Pakistani traction. But equally, in the wake of booming global e-commerce plans and the digitisation of various business ventures post-lockdown, Pakistani citizens are also benefiting from applications such as Bigo, TikTok and YouTube. Many bloggers and small businesses use these platforms to market their products, market them on behalf of other enterprises, or make a social media presence to seek digital opportunities. It would be unjust to shut down commercial activity in a pandemic-stricken world on the basis of regulatory moral requirements.

But then there is also the question of the nature of traction. On one hand, we want to protect the country’s moral fibre, but on the other hand we often forget that the use of apps in any manner is a reflection of the society as a whole. People produce content that has viewership. Banning viewership does not mean that the actions the content reflects have died out within society. The only thing a ban does is that it curtails expression. It curtails expression based on varying yardsticks of ‘reasonable’ restrictions.

This is perhaps why courts have consistently advocated for reasonable and defined yardsticks for restraints on fundamental freedoms. And this is to be said about any ban on expression. The concept of a ‘ban’ under the garb of a ‘reasonable restraint’ must be structured well within the confines of the freedoms afforded to citizens by the Constitution. It is not meant to afford any regulator the arbitrary power to decide which kind of morality must be prescribed to citizens. Therefore, the state must weigh what matters more. Should it create a moral fabric that most citizens evidently don’t ascribe to? Or should it allow Pakistani citizens to utilise technology to seek opportunities in an otherwise plummeting market?

Bans only mean that the state has superimposed a moral compass on its people and has shut its eyes to what happens afterwards. It does not uproot any ‘immorality’. Therefore, and eventually, the PTA must question itself often about whether it is a regulator of morals or if it is a regulator of technological advancements in Pakistan. Should it decide that it falls within the latter, then its main aim must be to make the internet a safe space for all instead of enforcing linear conceptions of morality.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets at @noorejazch

Ban-happy regulation: PTA’s crusade against social media applications