TikTok Ban: The sequel

March 21, 2021

With 20 million users and scores of talented and entertaining accounts, TikTok has been banned by the PTA a second time in a span of merely six months. A draconian, non-democratic regime of internet governance is at the heart of the problem

Akaleidoscope of human range and emotion exist on the app that is TikTok. Created in 2016, this app with a whopping 1.1 billion active users has created its niche and then expanded it in a manner that beggars belief. In Pakistan, TikTok received the warmest of welcomes as evidenced by its 20-million user base in the country and has created bright stars out of segments of society that else wise might not have had access to platforms where their creativity could shine.

Depending on the kind of content you enjoy, TikTok caters to almost every nuance from the singing prowess of Reeja Jillani, dramatic content from Toqeer Abbas aka Phoollu, or the comedic content created by Pinky Francis, and thousands of similarly talented accounts churning out dramatic and entertaining content, that appear to be coming almost straight from a cinematic epic.

These creators have amassed millions in followership and made a lucrative means of earning for themselves whilst providing entertainment to a regional and global audience, resulting in a win for all involved.

Why then has this social media platform been banned twice in a span of six months by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)?

The first ban on TikTok was placed in October of 2020 citing ‘immoral’ and ‘indecent’ content being hosted on the app. This was lifted by the Authority after 10 days, when the PTA “conditionally restored” the app, if it was not used for “the spread of vulgarity, indecent content”.

On March 11 this year, the PTA posted in a press release that the app had once again been banned, this time in compliance with the orders of the Peshawar High Court (PHC), issued during the hearing of a case.

The basis of the second ban was the same: Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan of the PHC noted that the “immoral content” hosted on the app was “not acceptable for Pakistani society”.

The repeated and arbitrary actions of relevant authorities over the digital domain in Pakistan are a tired premise for enforcing a non-democratic regime of internet governance which not only interferes with the right to access of internet but also damages future prospects of tech investment and growth in Pakistan, and even the continuation of the presence of existing digital platforms.

The Constitution of Pakistan sets out many fundamental rights afforded to its citizens but limits their applicability if in contradiction with state sovereignty, national security and public morality. However, the apex law does not set out the definition of that morality, which stands to affect significant decisions in the courts of the country.

The consensus, it seems, is to keep the marginalised within their margins, to not let them colour outside of their designated lines.

The banning of social media platforms and applications is also not new for Pakistan. Video-hosting giant YouTube faced a ban from 2012 to 2016, hampering not only content creators and v-loggers but also those using the platform to educate themselves through channels like Khan Academy, and those accessing it for purposes of entertainment.

Similarly, platforms like DeviantArt, Reddit (partially), Imgur, IMDb have all faced temporary bans by the authorities in Pakistan, with some bans being explained by the PTA while others were enforced without any reason provided.

There is also a stringent word-based restriction employed on all URLs searched in Pakistan which has resulted in websites providing medical guidance or information on couples’ therapy being unreachable by the nation at large, highlighting the negative impact of a blanket ban on concepts that are arbitrarily deemed ‘immoral’ yet actually facilitate public health.

The PTA website provides certain categories under which complaints can be lodged against URLs and websites that are promoting: blasphemy, nudity or anything that comes under the purvey of Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). This particular section has been heavily criticised by rights activists and organisations as a whole, both when the draft Bill including this provision surfaced and since 2016 when the law was passed and the PTA was given wide and arbitrary powers to govern online content.

As of March 1, a public notice has been put up on the PTA’s website encouraging internet users to “Be Responsible: Stop Indecent/Immoral Content Online” by reporting it to the PTA, citing Section 37 of the PECA as the basis for this action. This wave of morality-based regulation is only serving to fuel a mentality that is a far cry from what a progressive and balanced internet governance regime should look like.

As per the 2020 Freedom on the Net Report by Freedom House, Pakistan scores a lowly 26/100 (not free) in terms of obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Pakistan has consistently ranked ‘not free’ as per this worldwide ranking. Key developments from that report cite internet shutdowns as a regular feature in the life of the country’s netizens, specifically the infrastructurally marginalised FATA and Balochistan regions. This further supports the heavy dependence of the relevant authorities and the courts on blanket and arbitrary bans to control content creation, and with the advent of the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (RBUOC) Rules, content moderation as well.

The objections against this manner of internet governance are manifold.

The obvious rights violations, are both encroachments in terms of access to information and the right to access of internet granted through reaffirmation of Article 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) of the UDHR via the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS)’s Declaration of Principles.

That is then combined with the negation of democratic process in governing the digital space which is now the extension of the physical space we all occupy. The arbitrary markers of morality and decency, undefined in Pakistan’s Constitution have led to problematic judgements and negation of basic rights and freedoms.

The consensus, it seems, is to keep the marginalised within their margins, to not let them colour outside of their designated lines. Whether this has been portrayed in the recent reaction to the women and gender minorities’ rights movement via the Aurat March, or the shattering of ceilings as to who can achieve celebrity status, the accompanying financial growth, and a much-needed means of expression in the world of TikTok.

The writer is a lawyer by education, a digital rights activist by vocation and currently runs a project on the right to privacy with the Digital Rights Foundation. She tweets @ZainabKDurrani

TikTok Ban: The sequel