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October 10, 2020 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation Expresses Concern Over Recent Ban On Popular Social Media App, TikTok

Digital Rights Foundation Expresses Concern Over Recent Ban On Popular Social Media App, TikTok

Earlier today, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned the popular video app, TikTok in Pakistan. According to the press release posted on Twitter by the PTA, the Authority claims to be acting on a large number of complaints about content on the app ‘from different segments of society’. The PTA also claims that despite multiple notices, the app continued to post indecent content, finally resulting in the ban of the app. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is greatly disturbed by this rising tide of online censorship in Pakistan and exercise of arbitrary powers by the PTA in attempting to control free expression on the internet.

The PTA, on July 20, 2020, sent its final notice to TikTok over concerns of ‘immoral and indecent’ content on the app. At the same time, the PTA had banned the live streaming app, ‘Bigo Live’. DRF condemned the move at the time. As an organization that works on digital rights, DRF finds these developments extremely distressing and disturbing. These bans are a blatant violation of freedom of speech online. This ban comes at a time when the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 have been ‘ratified’ by the Cabinet without any transparency with the public. These Rules will further strengthen the ability of the PTA to remove and block access to an online content which goes against the ‘interest of Islam, integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, public health, public safety, decency and morality’ as well as content that is deemed to constitute an offence under the Pakistan Penal Code or the Code of Criminal Procedure.

TikTok has been widely popular among young Pakistanis, downloaded around 39 million times in the country, who used to use the app as a way to express themselves. The app allowed for instant virality and popularity, which gave a lot of young Pakistanis, who lacked access to the ‘entertainment industry’, a level playing field to showcase their talent. Significantly, TikTok was a medium of expression for women, gender minorities and individuals from all social backgrounds as many content creators challenged racial/ethnic stereotypes, patriarchal attitudes and class barriers. Additionally, the app also democratized access to the entertainment world and helped to create a healthy ecosystem of digital content. TikTok helped content creators on the app enjoy a new stream of income, thereby creating a new segment of the digital economy of Pakistan.

The PTA, on its pulpit for moral policing, has used vague terms such as ‘morality’ and ‘decency’ to regulate the internet without any transparency and accountability. As DRF has pointed out before, the Authority has failed to mount any objective standard for these terms and used it as a tool to morally police the internet.

A complete and blanket ban of TikTok is a disproportionate response to blocking potentially objectionable and harmful content on the platform. In fact, TikTok has been more than compliant to PTA’s requests as Pakistan is among the top five markets in terms of content removals over violations of its community guidelines. Furthermore, the company also issued its community guidelines and standards in Urdu. It is obvious that the PTA’s concern is not the safety of users or removal of harmful content as women TikTokers reaching out to DRF for months were never extended any form of support by the government, rather the ban is a tool to exert more control over online spaces by bullying social media companies into complying with user data requests and compliance for data removal requests for political content.

This is a crossroads for digital rights and online freedoms in Pakistan, we must push back to resist attempts to control our online spaces. The draconian legal regime imposed by the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 needs to be dismantled, particularly the removal of provisions such as section 37 which allows for wide powers to remove and block content as well as removal of section 20 (criminal defamation) which is used to silence women, journalists and victims of sexual violence time and time again. The time has come for the average internet user to stand up for their rights and resist!

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Statement

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