October 9, 2020 – The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has issued instructions to internet and mobile service providers to block TikTok, a video streaming application, in the country. The move comes the same day media reported potential notification of new Rules to moderate and block online content under section 37: Unlawful Online Content, of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.
According to the press release by PTA, the regulator had given notices to TikTok to comply with its terms and remove immoral and unlawful content from its platform. The statement claims that the non-compliance of TikTok to take adequate action against such content led to PTA’s decision to block the app in Pakistan.
The Authority has been approaching TikTok for content removal since earlier this year as news of PTA asking the app to remove videos of two content creators came to surface. A petition was filed in Lahore High Court (LHC) with a prayer to block TikTok in Pakistan on grounds that the users of the application promote pornography for fame on the internet. Since then, PTA has issued multiple notices and warnings of blocking to the smartphone app owing to “the complaints and nature of the content being consistently posted on TikTok”, as per the regulator.
The recent decision, as per PTA, was made after “the application failed to fully comply with the instructions.” The statement further mentions that PTA is open to review the decision if the platform decides to set up “satisfactory mechanism…to moderate unlawful content.”
People on Twitter have expressed mixed reactions to the move. While some celebrated the decision, others are expressing disapproval with many sharing how TikTok has financially helped them, and PTA’s decision will disproportionately affect their only source of income.
Twitter user Ali Khan Hyderabadi (@Fyvorite) writes,
“6 million people followed me in 60 days made huge money went to Dubai. found new friends.
Sarak Chaap se Star bana but Govt of Pakistan banned #TikTok. ab mai kiya karu ga? [It made me a star, but the government of Pakistan has banned TikTok. What will I do now?]
User H U Khan (@Huk06) shared that their friend left his job to start an ad business on TikTok, contributing to the job market and economy of Pakistan. They write that the government’s decision to ban TikTok has impacted livelihoods.
Tiktok has helped democratise the internet by giving people from working classes an easy access to online spaces that not only helped them earn money but also guaranteed an audience, a phenomena that has not been seen on platforms like Facebook and Twitter that mostly host people from a certain background and ability to communicate. Apps like TikTok made it easy for everyone to communicate via audio-visual creative content.
Bakhtawar Zardari, member Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), writes on Twitter, “People cannot afford the umpteenth increase in medicine prices, millions have lost jobs, children are being raped & killed, polio is back with a vengeance, The world is [digitising] due to ongoing pandemic with no end in sight, but Imran Khan is banning TikTok.”
PTA exercises powers vested upon it under s.37: unlawful online content, of PECA that empowers the Authority to remove or block any content on the internet. Earlier, Salwa Rana, the Legal Officer at Media Matters for Democracy, told DRM, “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.”
Asad Baig, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, told DRM that these attempts of censorship directly impact the livelihood of those who earn from the apps, in addition to the current government’s vision of Digital Pakistan that it has been promoting since it took office. “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.”
TikTok’s intention to moderate content
In late September 2020, TikTok set up a Safety Advisory Council for its operations in Asia to advise its management on content moderation and local issues in various countries that it operates in the region. The council appointed the President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT, Jehan Ara, as one of the seven council members.
Earlier this year, TikTok released its second transparency report after a lot of pressure from digital rights advocates from around the world. The platform mentioned that it does not take down content on the request of the governments, however, it has internal mechanisms to remove content that goes against its policies and community guidelines. According to this report, TikTok removed around 14 million videos, out of which over 3 million videos were from Pakistan between July and December 2019. The report further mentions that the system removed 98.2 percent of these videos before users reported them, and 89.4 percent videos were taken down before they received any views.
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran