Forbidden fun

October 18, 2020

Popular video-sharing platform TikTok remains banned over ‘obscenity’

Popular video-sharing platform TikTok is the latest target of authorities’ relentless quest to control social media tools and wipe out dissenting content in the name of religion and national security.

TikTok – a Chinese-owned popular video app – is largely used by young Pakistanis to express their talents.

On October 9, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the official regulator, issued instructions to block the highly popular social media app for not moderating and filtering “immoral/indecent content”.

Earlier, the PTA had issued two “warning notices” to the TikTok management, urging them to moderate content in Pakistan and bring meaningful changes. The authority says it gave “considerable time to respond and comply with” and said that Pakistan is still “open for engagement” to review the ban if TikTok is willing to develop a desirable mechanism.

“We have no objection to political satire or funny videos or some girls dancing, but there are a few hundred accounts that are spreading obscenity, nudity, pornography and TikTok does not appear willing to filter that,” a government official directly connected with the decision told The News on Sunday. However, when questioned, he was unable to define obscenity. Instead, he referred to Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronics Crimes Act 2016 (PECA), which allows the regulator to block immoral and indecent content.

Section 37, largely opposed by rights groups, reads: the authority has the power “to block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission or incitement to an offence under this law.”

Rights groups oppose this law, saying there is the possibility of misuse of this law on the pretext of religion or national security. They say such restrictions and blocking of the content is mostly politically motivated and curbs freedom of expression.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a recent meeting, talked about restrictions on all such platform spreading vulgarity and obscenity.

“This is an act of brutal censorship that is unacceptable in any democratic society. TikTok is known to be the most popular social media platform among common people in the country, especially the youth, who use it for artistic and political expression making it an alternative space for their aspirations, quality entertainment and creativity,” Bytes for All, a digital rights body, stated in its reaction to the ban. “The platform gives its users the ability to pick and choose the content of their interest. Moral policing by the state in an effort to control the cyberspace is totally uncalled for. At a time, when the country is going through socio-economic turmoil, adding such unnecessary hurdles and controls on the Internet is not going to benefit any sane purpose. Instead it will worsen the unemployment rate and frustration among the youth,” it stated.

“Past record shows that such filters have never worked in any country that tried to block such things and will be futile in Pakistan as well,” Shahzad Ahmad, the country director of the Bytes for All, told TNS. He urged the government to lift restrictions on cyberspace. “Such moral policing is not a norm of democratic states and societies. Such censorship has not worked even in China. A full control over political expression and peoples’ choices is not possible. The modern world believes that hate speech can be countered with more speech but here the state is imposing censorship on other subjects and an extremist narrative is being promoted,” he stated.

Recent reports suggest that the government is considering introducing new rules for social media regulation under a new title. Previously called the Online Harm to Persons Rules, the law was largely opposed and resisted by rights groups and social media users. Now, it is being labelled as Removal and Blocking Unlawful Online Content Act, 2020. The new rules are meant to control illegal, blasphemous, obscene and defamatory content on social media. All social media platforms such as TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will have to put up community guidelines for their users and open registered offices in Pakistan and appoint focal persons after the rules are officially promulgated. The internet service provider will restrict content in the interest of the security, prestige and defence of the country.

Recent reports suggest that the government is considering introducing new rules for social media regulation under a new title. Previously called the Online Harm to Persons Rules, the law was largely opposed and resisted by rights groups and social media users. The new rules are meant to control illegal, blasphemous, obscene and defamatory content on social media.

The TikTok app, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower, has been downloaded more than 39 million times in Pakistan. It is the third-most downloaded app over the past year after WhatsApp and Facebook.

According to TikTok, Pakistan is among its top five markets where the largest volume of videos has been removed over violations of its community guidelines. In its recent transparency report, TikTok said it had deleted more than 49 million videos which broke its rules, between July and December 2019. About a quarter of those videos were deleted for containing adult nudity or sexual activity. About one-third of the videos came from India, followed by the United States and Pakistan where it has removed over 3 million videos for violating its community guidelines.

Shahzad Saleem, an Islamabad-based TikToker and frequent user of the app for the past three years, is unhappy over the ban. “There is no justification for this ban in the name of vulgarity and obscenity. TikTok itself deletes such videos. If some of them remain, our authorities should block those accounts rather than suspend the whole app in the country,” he says. He adds: “A lot of unemployed youth were benefiting from this app to earn money by making funny and interesting videos which were liked by a lot of people.”

Saleem says vulgarity and nudity are not limited to TikTok. “We need to change the way people behave rather than blocking such tools and depriving the youth of such avenues to express themselves”, he says.

Pakistan, now, has more than a decade long history of internet censorship, blocking and banning social media apps and restricting freedom of expression on social media besides controlling print and electronic media, mostly in the name of religion and national security/interest.

In 2006, the country started blocking websites and imposing filters on internet over alleged blasphemy. In 2011, it blocked YouTube, to restrict a blasphemous movie. Restrictions were also put on some bloggers and Wikipedia. Authorities also put in place the Netsweeper filtering product to control the content.

According to an analysis of the Netsweeper’s role in Pakistan, the technology was implemented in the country “for the purposes of political and social filtering, including websites relating to human rights, sensitive religious topics, and independent media.” In addition to using Netsweeper technology to block websites, ISPs also use other less transparent methods, such as DNS tampering, the report highlighted.

In July, the PTA banned the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) platform, with over 16 million users in Pakistan following suicides by several children. The same month, the PTA also banned live streaming Beigo app. In early September, the PTA blocked five dating and live streaming applications for “immoral content”. The apps were: Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr and SayHi.

In a recent statement, Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication Aminul Haque has said the ban on TikTok is temporary. “If some content goes against the moral values of the country, is malicious or spews anti-state ideas, it will not be tolerated,” he said. “Talks are going on with TikTok and if their management agrees to follow Pakistani policy guidelines, the ministry will allow it back.”

Interestingly, the app is also banned in neighbouring India. On June 29, the Modi government banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese-owned apps after Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in Galwan valley. Several of China’s most popular services, including the messaging platform WeChat and social media site Weibo, were also banned. On August 6, 2020, US President Donald Trump published executive orders banning TikTok. The orders declared that the two apps would be blocked from processing transactions for US citizens and from being downloaded in US app stores after 45 days, or on September 20, due to security concerns. However, a US judge temporarily blocked the order hours before it would have gone into effect and removed TikTok from US app stores. Earlier, Indonesia had enacted a temporary ban on the platform in 2018 over inappropriate content.


The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Forbidden fun: TikTok remains banned in Pakistan over ‘obscenity’