Banning online apps

25 Jul 2020

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THE season of moral policing and censorship is yet again upon us. In a fresh move to clamp down on digital platforms, the PTA has banned video-streaming app Bigo and issued a final notice to short video app TikTok for allegedly encouraging “immoral, obscene and vulgar content”. (A ban on the online game PUBG has just been lifted by the court.) The regulator has said that despite communicating its reservations to both companies, it was not satisfied with their responses. Therefore, it said, PTA had decided to immediately block Bigo and issue a final warning to TikTok “to control obscenity, vulgarity and immorality” on its app. Worryingly, the Supreme Court has separately taken notice of ‘objectionable’ content on YouTube. The court regretted that people using the social media platform “incite people against the judiciary, the armed forces and the government” adding that “we are showing restraint but this has to come to an end”. The objections appear to have sparked fears that YouTube may be blocked in the country — as in 2012 when the platform was banned for four years.

PTA’s message that content on these platforms is “vulgar and obscene” is ambiguous. While there is no doubt that online content which falls under the category of death threats, hate speech and sexual violence must be reported and taken up with these platforms, the regulator’s reasoning that these channels feature material that “have a negative effect on society” is vague and reeks of moral policing. What are the regulator’s specific concerns? If they are about child pornography and explicit videos of minors, it must communicate this to the company. TikTok maintains that it has deleted 3.7m videos from Pakistan for violating its community guidelines in a crackdown against content featuring nudity or sexual activity. If the company appears to be open to taking action against content which is deemed criminal, the government must engage with these platforms so that concerns can be communicated effectively. As the Digital Rights Foundation put it, the justification of such bans to ‘protect’ children is akin to banning highways to prevent road accidents. Similarly, any move to ban a platform like YouTube, too, would be counterproductive; the earlier ban severely hurt content creators who later flourished by monetising their content. The state must not dictate morality to the people, especially when these apps are avenues for learning, income generation and creative expression by young people who are devoid of entertainment and opportunities.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020