July 21, 2020 – Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), has blocked live video streaming smartphone application, Bigo Live, in Pakistan, as per the statement by the Authority on July 20.
According to the statement, the app has been blocked on complaints “from different segments of the society against immoral, obscene & vulgar content”. The PTA also received similar complaints about the video sharing app, TikTok, that has been issued a final warning by the Authority on similar grounds before it is also banned.
The statement also mentions that the concerned social media companies had been contacted and issued notices as per law to moderate “the socialization and content within legal and moral limits, in accordance with the laws of the country.” However, it states that the response from the companies has not been satisfactory.
Bigo Live, which is owned by a Singapore-based company BIGO Technologies, allows its users to earn money through the live content they produce. The model of the app works on the basis of the number of followers who respond to the live videos of users with virtual “gifts” that the host of the live video can convert to cash. With millions of users of Bigo Live in Pakistan, the app has been helping people in earning money.
Tooba Syed, an academic and social activist, writes in her tweets, “Bigo is totally an app which no parha likha [educated person] uses or knows about even on here. it was purely for the working class folks, people with disability, dancers, singers, etc. It offered a safe working space for dancers cause they could earn money by dancing on it instead of going to parties/weddings and risking violence.”
PTA has blocked the app in exercising its powers vested under s.37: Unlawful Content, of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016. Salwa Rana, the Legal Officer at Media Matters for Democracy, says, “The discretionary content removal powers granted to the PTA through Section 37 of the PECA are one of the biggest threats facing free expression in the Country and must be repealed as soon as possible. This section has only been used as a tool to silence dissent and the exchange of ideas through unconventional mediums.” She adds, In the absence of the Rules that aim to provide an effective oversight mechanism over PTA’s content removal powers under Section 37, it is also difficult to ascertain how the PTA reached its decision on blocking Bigo.”
Salwa also noted that unless Bigo was provided with a reasoned speaking order as per Section 37(4) of the PECA, the legitimacy of PTA’s decision can be challenged by the video-streaming app in accordance with Islamabad High Court’s judgment in AWP Vs. PTA.
Earlier in July, a civil miscellaneous petition was filed in Lahore High Court to demand the ban on TikTok on grounds that the users of the application promote pornography for fame on the internet. PTA has also expressed its intention of blocking the app in its recent statement. Similar action was taken by PTA for the smartphone video game PUBG which was banned in the country on July 1 on account of the game being “addictive, wastage of time and poses serious negative impact on physical and psychological health of the children.” However, the decision was questioned in Islamabad High Court (IHC) on July 14 by Justice Amer Farooq who remarked that the PTA should have taken advice from a mental health expert before banning the game, and noted that it has become a practice to ‘put everything in [religious and ethical sensitivities] category’ (to justify the ban). The decision on the case had been reserved.
Asad Baig, the co-founder and director of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “The arbitrary blocking of applications and websites does not serve the interests of the public, in fact, only limits their ability to exercise the rights and protections that they have been granted under various laws and the Constitution itself.” He adds, “The authorities cannot justify every attempt of censorship under the garb of ‘modesty’ or ‘obscenity’ when these terms are vague and are not clearly defined in the law.”
Asad further adds, “These apps are also helping young people in earning livelihood for themselves. This blocking of online platforms only contradicts the very vision of Digital Pakistan that the current government is promoting. E-commerce and the economy cannot flourish if the authorities continue to ban internet based platforms on unreasonable and ambiguous grounds, because this will only deter international companies from bringing their businesses in Pakistan given the restrictions on their business models.”
According to the second transparency report of TikTok, the video sharing application does not take videos on its platform on the request of the government, instead scrutinises them on the basis of its own community guidelines. Between July and December 2019, TikTok took down around 14 million videos, out of which over 3 million videos were from Pakistan.
Bigo Live, TikTok, PUBG and the likes have empowered people from all socioeconomic classes to navigate online spaces and become content creators on platforms that have been restricted for only a certain kind of groups. Asad is of the view that it’s important that such platforms are utilised in the Digital Pakistan vision constructively to promote economy instead of blocking them on issues that are beyond the scope of the law.