Pakistan lifts TikTok ban after assurances by app’s management

Islamabad: After the assurance regarding the removal of objectionable content from Chinese video-sharing and lip-syncing app TikTok’s management, Pakistan has reversed its decision of ban.

The country’s telecommunication regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said in a statement that it was lifting the ban, announced 10 days ago, after the management committed to moderating content and adhering to country’s social media regulatory laws.

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PTA in its statement on social media said that TikTok was being unblocked after the assurance from the app’s management that they would block all accounts involved in spreading obscenity and immorality.

Last month, Pakistan’s Minister for Information Shibli Faraz during an interview had said that Prime Minister Imran Khan was of the view that TikTok was spreading vulgarity and adversely harming the society’s norms. The information minister further said that the premier was of the view that such apps should be blocked

He had said that while expressing concerns over the increasing obscenity the premier had directed all the officials concerned to look into the matter before such apps destroy social and religious values of Pakistani society. The minister had also said that the premier wanted a wide-ranging policy against the vulgarity and obscenity, being spread in society, through social media applications.

While announcing the ban, PTA in its October 9 statement said that the reason for the ban was complaints against TikTok that it hosted immoral and indecent content.  However, some analysts said that the ban was an attempt to censoring videos that were critical of the government.

On October 15, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had issued notice to PTA and summoned the authority’s top officials on a petition seeking removal of the ban on Chinese video-sharing TikTok application.

The high court had also issued notice to the Ministry of Information and Technology and the federal government in the case.

The court had also appointed President of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Vice Chairman Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), journalists Mazhar Abbas and Javed Jabbar as amici curiae in the case to assist the Court on banning of online platforms and implications for Freedom of Expression and Speech and Right to Access to information under Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution and misuse of PECA 2016 and to consider how can freedom of expression, speech and access to information be curtailed by PTA on vague criteria of immoral and decent content.

The petition was filed by Pakistan’s athlete Muhammad Ashfaq Jutt, who is also twelve-time National Champion of the Wushu Kung-Fu, whereby it stated that he had been associated with the field of Mixed Martial Arts for last 20 years and that he was a celebrated athlete.

Expressing concern over the arbitrary ban on Constitutional grounds, the petitioner requested the Court to declare the ban imposed ultra vires the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996, the fundamental rights of the citizens secured in the Constitution, namely, right to access to information and freedom of expression, right to life and economic liberty, the right to be heard & principles of Natural Justice.

According to Advocate Usama civil society, rights watchdogs, journalists, activists, and global internet giants have opposed this unregulated practice of regulating social media.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed its concerns that the authorities want to use the regulations to control the “freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting “religious, cultural, ethnic, and national security sensitivities”.

The petition stated that the ban violated section 37(3) of the PECA 2016 as the PTA has exercised authority without the directions of the Federal Government.

Pakistan is among many other countries like the US and India where TikTok has faced obstacles. Earlier, TikTok drew a huge market in India until New Delhi banned the app along with several other Chinese-owned services in late June in the backdrop of growing tensions with Beijing.

Also in the United States, the Trump administration is fighting the legal battle to block the app on the pretext of national security and data concerns. In September, during the course of legal proceedings, a US federal judge ruled that Trump can’t force its removal from app stores just yet.

Figures suggest that TikTok has been installed about 43 million times in Pakistan. According to research firm SensorTower, this number of TikTok installation makes Pakistan it’s 12th largest market. According to the app’s transparency report of the first half of the year 2020, Tiktok removed over 6.4 million video contents from Pakistan on violation of community guidelines.

A spokesperson for TikTok in response to Pakistan’s decision of uplifting the ban said in a statement that the management was pleased to see that the app had been restored in Pakistan, adding that the management would be able to enable Pakistani voices and creativity in a safe environment.

Pakistan began exercising control over its internet long before TikTok came along. Authorities blocked YouTube from 2012 until 2016 after an anti-Islam short film was posted.

In 2016, the country introduced a controversial cyber-security law to regulate internet content, especially social media. The law namely Pakistan Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016 empowered authorities to block a range of content for a variety of reasons including in the “interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan.”

According to the human rights watchdog Freedom House, Pakistan blocked more than 800,000 websites between June 2018 and May 2019. In September 2020, Pakistan blocked access to the dating apps Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr and SayHi on the similar grounds of immoral and indecent content.

On October 6, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) once again approached the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to express its concern over no consultation process with it and its input in revised rules for regulating social media.

While expressing grave concerns, the AIC also questioned transparency in the consultation process for revising the rules and regretted that despite multiple requests, no draft of the revised Rules had been shared with industry stakeholders for input or feedback. It had also expressed fear that the improperly formulated rules would not only harm the business environment but it would also have grave effects on attractiveness for investors in technology companies.

The letter of AIC was a follow up to its letter to the premier regarding the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 or the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020.

AIC noted that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had committed with AIC regarding sharing of a draft copy of the Rules for latter’s feedback.

AIC in its letter stated that it was not against the regulation of social media. “However, regulations need to be reasonable, based upon realistic expectations, capable of being implemented and consistent with best practice,” it said.

The AIC is an association of leading Internet and Technology companies which seeks to promote the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region. Companies like Twitter, Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Cloudflare, Expedia Group, Facebook, Google are members of AIC.

Revised draft rules to regulate social media in Pakistan:

Under the revised rules, PTA will never restrict any online content. However, there are a few exceptions. PTA may remove or block the access to online content which is against the religion or anti-Pakistan and defence, and public order.

The PTA may also remove the content based on immoral or indecent grounds. The content which constitutes an offence under different sections of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) or of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) may also be blocked by the PTA.

It would be mandatory for any social media platform to publish guidelines in line with the Pakistani laws to inform the users not to display or update any online content ultra vires of the guidelines. These guidelines will cater to the subjects of blasphemy, defamatory, obscene and pedophiliac content. The guidelines will also cover the matter of other’s privacy, propaganda against religion, culture, ethnical or and other sensitivities of Pakistan.

Those service providers or social media platforms which have more than half a million Pakistani users and especially ‘notified’ by the authority must be subject to the provision of the act. The draft rules also include registration of service providers or social media platforms, having more than half a million users in Pakistan, with authority and the same companies will be required to establish a permanent office within Pakistan.

Under the revised rules, the PTA will be entitled to entertain complaints by anyone about the violation of rules and guidelines. Under the rules, the term ‘anyone’ mainly includes parents of children, affected by negative content, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies or a company owned or controlled by the government.

The details of the complainant will be kept confidential while the complaint before the PTA shall be decided within thirty days and the Authority may pass any order with reasons. However, a notice of 24 hours shall be furnished to the concerned parties to comply with the directions given in the written order.

For emergency cases, the PTA along with the specific reasons of emergency in writing may also direct the service provider and social media platforms to block the access to the online content within six hours. Under the revised rules, failure to compliance of PTA’s order may lead to the initiation of action against the social media platform or service provider or web server.

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