PAKISTAN’S 20 million-strong TikTok community must be rejoicing over the government’s recent decision to lift the ban on the video-sharing app. The Chinese government too welcomed the move, stating that companies operating from the country must abide by the laws, customs and religious values of host nations. But although the ban has been revoked, Pakistan’s image may have suffered a blow. The arbitrary decision taken by the PTA to ban the app for having “immoral” and “obscene” content exposed the authorities’ lack of understanding of the digital economy and the virtual world. This is ironic considering that the tech-savvy PTI governing team attaches high priority to the goal of a Digital Pakistan. Such bans will make it difficult to convince competent professionals to come to Pakistan and work on the Digital Pakistan project. It might have also scared away potential investors who were interested in Pakistan’s relatively untapped internet market.
There have also been some reports in the international media that suggest the ban might have been an attempt at muzzling criticism of government policies by TikTokers. The PTA chairman while briefing a Senate committee last week revealed that TikTok blocked about 4m videos and 25,000 Pakistan-based accounts over the past three months. One wonders, however, under what criteria these accounts were shut down, especially since TikTok is a way of expressing creative musings. Though the PTA has now restored Pakistan’s third most popular app — after Facebook and Twitter — it has done so on the condition that the platform will not allow “vulgar” or “indecent content” to be shared. Instead of adopting the isolationist approach of banning information and differing points of view, perhaps the PTA can work with content creators to disseminate awareness messages about the second wave of Covid-19 and to debunk conspiracy theories about the polio vaccine. TikTok has proven to be an equaliser for Pakistanis in the virtual world, and it can be utilised in a positive way, instead of being subjected to obsessive screening for supposed vulgarity.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2020