September 23rd, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
App users and Digital Rights activists have bashed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) defense of its decision of banning Tik Tok. On September 22nd a PTA representative informed the Peshawar High Court (PHC) that PTA will not unblock the app Tik Tok until it complies with the PTA’s demand to unban all illegal content from its platform. The app was banned in Pakistan under an order delivered on July 20, 2021.
The PTA presented a report to the two members bench of the PHC to justify its stance. In the report, the PTA re-iterated its longstanding demand of asking social media companies (including TikTok) to open regional offices in Pakistan, to localize their data or to at least appoint a spokesperson for Pakistan for seamless communication, in compliance with the controversial Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards Rules, 2020.
But despite repeated reminders by the PTA no social media company has ever complied with this demand and experts on digital media doubt that such a ‘ridiculous’ demand can ever be fulfilled. “The Asia Internet Coalition, a coalition of tech giants including Facebook and Google, has already rejected the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards Rules, 2020 and have out rightly refused to open regional offices or to localize their data. I can categorically say that this will not happen. And I think that the government has realized this and might move back from this demand in the near future,” explains Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi a research and advocacy non-profit focusing on digital rights.
Another demand which the PTA has made of Tik Tok in its report is “proactive content moderation” something which according to Khilji the app has already and very effectively employed. “According to data provided by Tik Tok, some 93 percent of indecent and inappropriate videos uploaded to Tik Tok are removed within seconds of being uploaded, before anyone ever even has a chance to view them. From these figures, it is evident that Tik Tok’s moderation policy is already very proactive. So this demand made by the PTA also does not make a lot of sense,” Khilji.
Experts and users alike point out that repeatedly banning social media platforms like Tik Tok over impractical and senseless demands not only puts pressure on Pakistan’s budding digital economy but also impedes the government’s own efforts to regulate these platforms. “A lot of people like me are dependent on Tik Tok for their bread butter so even when the app is banned by the government people do not just abandon their accounts. We use VPNs and other such technologies to access and upload content to the platform. In this case, since the app is being used illegally, it becomes even harder to monitor its content,” explains a Tik Tok influencer *Waseem.
Digital Rights advocates agree with Waseem’s categorization stating that “frequent app bands lead to the formation of parallel black economies.” According to experts, the core issue is that Pakistan’s policymakers have failed to update their knowledge and are intent on imposing a 20th-century mentality on technologies of the 21st century, much like Khilji points out “If you ask me the fundamental problem is that our digital policy is governed by archaic thinking.”