March 13th, 2021 

By Rehan Piracha 


Digital rights organizations and a federal minister have criticized a court ban on the TikTok app over alleged obscene content in the country saying Pakistan may have to pay a high price over such measures.

This is the second time the popular short video sharing platform has been banned in Pakistan in less than six months. On Thursday, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority directed Internet service providers to immediately block access to the TikTok app in compliance with the orders of the Peshawar High Court.

Hearing a petition in Peshawar by several citizens against uploading of alleged obscene and indecent content on the app, a bench headed by PHC Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid and Justice Muhammad Nasir Mehfooz directed PTA officials to suspend the operation of the application for a fortnight.

Videos not acceptable to the society: PHC

The chief justice observed that the court had earlier ordered the PTA to devise a mechanism for filtering contents on TikTok, but so far the authority had failed to do so. The bench observed that the videos uploaded on TikTok were not acceptable to society and the app had been promoting immoral and vulgar content.

Minster offers to develop tech modules for judges

Reacting to the ban on the social media platform, Fawad Chaudhry, Federal Minister for Science and Technology, reiterated his earlier statement that court judgments had slowed down Pakistan’s technological progress. “(Thecourt decision to ban TikTok is yet another court decision for which people of Pakistan will pay a huge price,” he tweeted on Friday. The minister said he understood that judges had no awareness about how technology companies operated around the world. He requested the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take notice of the high court ban on the social media platform.

The federal minister offered that his ministry was ready to work with the judiciary to develop training modules on technology for judges.

‘Ban may lead to a flight of big tech’

Asked about the impact of the TikTok ban, Nighat Dad, Founder Digital Rights Foundation, said constant curbs, bans, and censors are signals to international technology firms that ease of doing business in Pakistan has become very low. “We saw with the new social media rules that the Asia Internet Coalition said that it might leave Pakistan if the practice of banning social media platforms continued in the country,” she said.

Dad said the ban on the popular short videos platform will cause economic hardship for creators as the app opened a new avenue of income for poor and underprivileged families. “Such creators from poor and rural backgrounds so far only have a presence on one social media platform, so it isn’t like they can switch from their audience on TikTok, to let’s say, Instagram, just because TikTok no longer works,” she added.

Sharing concerns expressed by Nighat Dad, Usama Khilji, Executive Director, Bolo Bhi, expressed surprise that the high court went on to ban the social media platform despite the PTA officials telling the court that the technology firm was cooperating with them in restricting obscene content.

‘Grounds of immoral and obscene content unacceptable’

Khilji said the grounds of immoral and obscene content for the ban were also unacceptable as the social media platform removed the highest number of videos uploaded by users in Pakistan. “TikTok has already removed or restricted more than 14,000 videos in Pakistan upon the government’s request which is the highest in the world, and more than 8.2 million videos have been removed in Pakistan by TikTok on its own,” he said.

Khilji pointed out the lack of understanding among policymakers and judges about the operations of technology firms and services provided to users in Pakistan. “This links to an acute lack of knowledge among policymakers and judges about how the technology works and what the impact of such a ban is on the Pakistani population,” he said. TikTok has been downloaded by almost 50 million Pakistanis, and is especially popular among lower socio-economic classes that use the app for connecting and expressing themselves, he added.

TikTok says complying with local laws

Byte Dance, the company running the TikTok app, said in a statement the app was maintaining a safe and positive in-app environment. “We use a combination of technologies and moderation strategies to detect and review content that violates our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines and we implement penalties including removing videos and banning accounts when there are violations,” the statement by TikTok said.

“Our H2 2020 Transparency Report shows that we aggressively and proactively take down inappropriate content in Pakistan. This highlights our commitment to complying with local laws,” the company said.

“We have enhanced moderation capabilities in Pakistan, with our local-language moderation team growing close to 250 percent since September 2020. At the same time, TikTok is built upon the foundation of creative expression,” it said.

The company said it was working closely with the PTA to further strengthen safeguards on behalf of users. “But we are also committed to ensuring our users’ rights to express themselves creatively on the platform, in line with our policies.”