September 6th, 2020
By Haider Kaleem
On September 1, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to five location-based dating and social discovery applications, in light of perceived “indecent/immoral content” being propagated through the use of these apps.
The apps, Tinder, SayHi, Tagged, Skout, and Grindr (which exclusively caters to LGBTQ users), were issued notices by the authority to suspend dating services within the country and to moderate live-streaming content according to Pakistani laws. But upon the lack of response, the body proceeded to suspend the apps from operating within Pakistan and stated that if the management teams behind the platforms respond and fulfill the demands laid out by the PTA, the ban may be reconsidered.
In an emailed statement to Reuters, a chief operating officer for Grindr Rick Marini said that the company was “deeply disappointed by the… decision to ban Grindr and other dating apps that allow Pakistani citizens to connect with others on our platforms.” There was no indication from the company whether or not it would convene with the PTA regarding the matter, while a Tinder spokesperson stated that the service welcomed “the opportunity to discuss [their] product and moderation efforts” with the PTA and was looking forward to a meaningful conversation.
Popular among the youth of Pakistan, the ban on these apps resulted in a wave of strong reactions on social media. Dr. Nida Kirmani, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, was highly critical of the authority body’s move, stating that the PTA is rarely ever able to expedite its actual duties and responsibilities and is instead busy in suspending apps that facilitate an alternative mode of socializing for the youth, especially women.
“The PTA is treading into territory beyond its ambit by acting as moral police. It has assumed that Pakistani citizens are children in need of a parent’s guidance, and as such has taken up that role of the parent so that they have an arbitrary right to dictate what is right and wrong,” she lamented. “This is not their responsibility.”
She observed that there is nothing wrong socially or religiously using apps to date or make friends. Furthermore, such apps are important for people who are unable to traverse real-world spaces, who are unable to leave their homes and are barred from socializing with the opposite gender – such restrictions are faced mainly by women in Pakistan.
“These apps were a means for people living with such restrictions to communicate and establish connections with their privacy intact. Of course these apps could also be used maliciously but there are more positives than negatives,” she added.
Shmyla Khan, a digital rights activist as well as a user, said that although there is a severe dearth of safe spaces for social networking for women, the recently banned apps were a relatively safer alternative mode for them.
“In Pakistan, women are denied most public spaces. They lack mobility and are unable to use most public transport. These spaces are not physically safe for women. For many women, these online platforms were perhaps the only spaces where women are able to express themselves and are able to connect and socialize,” she explained. “But when you ban these platforms, you are not addressing the root cause behind discrimination and violence [towards women] in our society. Banning apps is just a cosmetic change.”
Female users reiterated their concerns that banning such apps is an erasure of some of the scant safe spaces for women in Pakistan.
“The women that do use these apps have to take plenty of precautions such as removing any display pictures or using pseudonyms,” one user stated. “If the PTA’s objective is to regulate these apps so that these interactions happen in a safer environment then I do not know how banning apps will accomplish that.”
Another user stated that safe online spaces were women had been snatched away with the PTA’s ban on-site that facilitate freedom of self-expression, and on platforms that connect people and promote connectivity in a safe way.
On the other hand, the PTA has retained its silence over content propagating hate speech, and sectarian violence is commonplace in the Pakistani web sphere