The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) lifted its ban on TikTok on October 19, only 10 days after it introduced it.
The regulator said it was reversing its decision after the Chinese company ByteDance assured authorities it will moderate content in compliance with Pakistan's laws.
PTA ordered the ban after the mobile video app failed to comply with the regulator's instructions to adopt “effective mechanisms for proactive moderation of unlawful online content,” it said on a statement on October 9.
In view of number of complaints from different segments of the society against immoral/indecent content on the video sharing application TikTok, pic.twitter.com/Vmp5umixeL
— PTA (@PTAofficialpk) October 9, 2020
Under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA 2016), dubbed as draconian by digital rights activists, the PTA has the power to order service providers to block or remove any piece of online content.
It has previously blocked a number of services, including YouTube that was banned from 2013-2016. It removed the three-year ban on YouTube after the Google-owned video-sharing website launched a local version that allows the government to demand the removal of material it considers offensive.
In August, PTA has written again to YouTube to remove objectionable content from its platform. The authority also blocked the online South Korean game PUBG on July 1; the ban was lifted on July 30 after PTA reached an agreement with the legal representatives of Proxima Beta Pte Ltd (PB), the game's maker.
There has been a lot of online debate around banning TikTok since its popularity spiked in Pakistan in the past two years.
In July 2019, a civil petition was filed in Lahore High Court seeking a nationwide ban on TikTok, claiming the app was “a great mischief of modern times” and it was “destroying the youth and promoting immoral activities.”
Arslan Khalid, a digital media adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, tweeted in July this year:
The recent exploitation of female tick tockers, the objectification & sexualization of young girls on tik tok was causing huge pain to the parents & was proving detrimental for our society .Tik Tok is being given final warning to work on their filters stopping obscene content pic.twitter.com/bjAHPZCk2J
— Dr Arslan Khalid (@arslankhalid_m) July 20, 2020
On October 2, the government revised its rules for blocking online content. According to Digital Rights Monitor, the federal government issued a notice for the implementation of new social media rules but the actual draft of the Rules are not yet available on the website of PTA and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT):
The Federal Government had issued a notice for the notification of Rules for Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules 2020 on the 16th of October 2020. The Rules, that have been drafted under Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, have continued to amass criticism from local civil society and media organisations and local and international private sector technology companies.
A group of 12 civil society organisations and journalist unions and over 49 individuals released a statement to show their concern about these new Rules. They said that there has been no consultation with all stakeholders on the revised draft.
We would like to remind the cabinet and the government that drafting of rules that stand to have a detrimental impact on the digital ecosystem, economy, and online expression is not a task that should be rushed through without paying attention to the inputs of all involved stakeholders. […] The lack of transparency is not only alarming, it projects the intention of the government to disregard the concerns of individuals that have time and again been raised and communicated to government departments and officials.
The notification shared by the government said the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is authorised to remove any online content they deem unlawful; the criteria for unlawful is described in subsection (1) of section 37 of the Act. The subsection says that “without any prejudice, if the online content goes against the glory of Islam, the integrity, security, and defense of Pakistan, or Public order, health, safety, decency, or morality, the PTA can and should remove it.”
All social media companies such as TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter will have to put up community guidelines in accordance with local regulations for their users in Pakistan. Platforms with more than half a million Pakistani users will have to get registered with the PTA and establish a registered office in the country within nine months of the implementation of the rules.
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association including internet companies like Amazon, Apple and Twitter, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan expressing regret that it wasn't consulted during the formulation of such rules.
The TikTok ban was met with plenty of criticism.
Two civil petitions challenging the ban were filed earlier this month in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and the Singh High Court.
The petitions argued that TikTok “provides a platform for talented Pakistani citizens to exercise their right of expression and to demonstrate creativity” and that the ban was “a violation of the Constitution's Article 19,” which provides for freedom of expression.
Asad Baig, a digital rights activist and director of Media Matters for Democracy tweeted:
Tiktok is banned by PTA. Decision came weeks after IK expressed his displeasure over “obscenity & vulgarity” on the platform.
Arbitrary suspensions like these could throw Pak back to stoneages. We are alienating billion dollar companies & causing ourselves global embarrassment. https://t.co/UUdM06X4mb
— asad beyg (@asadbeyg) October 10, 2020
Amnesty International South Asia tweeted:
PAKISTAN: In the name of a campaign against vulgarity, people are being denied the right to express themselves online. The #TikTokBan comes against a backdrop where voices are muted on television, columns vanish from newspapers, websites are blocked and television ads banned.
— Amnesty International South Asia (@amnestysasia) October 9, 2020
Many Pakistani TikTok stars also criticized the ban. Creator Ashfaq Jutt, who's also the Senior Vice-President of Pakistan Kickboxing Federation, sent a legal notice to PTA urging them to revoke the ban as it violated his constitutional rights to information and freedom of expression.
Meanwhile on Twitter, hashtags such as #UnBanTikTok trended.
Bakhtawar Bhutto, daughter of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said:
Immoral content is not on tiktok, it’s embedded in our sexist society where women cannot wear yoga pants on tv or drive at night, & children are picked up & assaulted. Have deteriorated so much. Look what’s happening in madrassas, in open public spaces- the problem is NOT tiktok.
— Bakhtawar B-Zardari (@BakhtawarBZ) October 9, 2020
Marvi Soomro, an activist and also a TikToker, said:
Let me remind you @PTIofficial
Until and Unless you stop this banning culture and get some good laws to moderating unlawful content in accordance with laws of Pakistan. Nothing will stop. Tiktok has been replaced with many other apps. #UnbanTiktok @fawadchaudhry pic.twitter.com/WjgAuMFd6n
— MarviSoomro_Official (@MarviSoomro_) October 16, 2020
Nasir Khan Jan, an artist and model, called Pakistan “bannistan:”
TikTok has been banned. Abh sub theek hojaye ga, na rapes hongay, na ghalat kaam hoga. Welcome to Bannistan, where we ban music, art, poetry and the ability to question ones existence but then cry over why the people are extremists and there is so much violence in Pakistan! ❤️?
— Nasir Khan Jan (@NKJModel) October 9, 2020
Still, some defended the ban:
— Mr. S Occultist (@FreedomError404) October 9, 2020
— Peaceinwayofallah (@Peaceinwayofal1) October 16, 2020
People are concerned about the ban but not for the Quran that is laying closed in the house. These are the Muslims of today.