Rethinking bans

Updated 23 Oct 2020


The writer is an author and an entrepreneur.
The writer is an author and an entrepreneur.

A COUPLE of weeks back, Pakistan banned the digital application TikTok. The irony was that the Pakistan Telecommuni­cation Authority announced the ban on another digital application, Twitter. After 10 days, the PTA lifted the ban. The ban itself was not well-thought-out in the first place.

To ban anything, the government must be just. In all just decisions, rigorous detail about a matter is laid out in a logical, clear and prudent manner. To announce such a ban in only 13 lines of text did not display prudence. Thirteen lines are not enough if they reflect all the thinking done by those employed by the regulatory authority that has the power to ban anything that can deprive millions of their voices. Lest we forget, this same PTA is funded by you and me.

The announcement of this ban was short on detail. It mentioned that the ban was put in place because of a “number of complaints”, but did not mention the actual number. The announcement also noted that TikTok had “immoral” and “indecent” content, but it did not define these terms, leaving them open to all kinds of interpretations. Even if one assumes the best intentions, the absence of rigour and precise detail not only made it jarring but also concerning.

Is this episode of the ban an example of good governance? Was it a high-quality decision? Well, when those who have a noble character and a fine disposition rule, they establish good governance by creating fine institutions. And fine institutions make fine decisions that not only improve the state’s welfare but also that of its people. Because the PTA did not disclose reasonable detail or data, it did not make a high-quality decision.

To ban anything, a government must be just.

Also, by making decisions without detail and data, those who rule make their citizens go through pain and torture. With the lack of detail and data, the government forces its citizens to spend a great deal of energy and time in trying to understand its confused narratives. To make sense of that confusion, citizens run hither and thither, without help from any corner. Such pain is a form of torture, as anthropologist David Graeber noted.

Banning a digital application does not ensure that citizens would never see or hear immoral or indecent content. One sees all kinds of content, good and bad, on social media. Does that mean we should ban social media (the same medium the PTA uses for announcements)? The internet has all kinds of content. Should we ban the internet if we do not agree with some content on it?

Wholesale bans cannot work. Every day, thousands die on our roads, and many lose their health or are victims of crime. But does the government ban all traffic in Pakistan? It does not. Because the solution is to investigate these crimes, ensure justice is served, and reduce the likelihood of these incidents to a minimum. Indefinitely stopping the traffic that lets our merchants run our economy, the sick access healthcare, students get to school, and the poor go to work, would bring life to a halt.

Does a ban on a digital application stop people from getting to their jobs or damaging the economy? It does. Such a ban is not a good signal of an open and transparent business environment. Also, if our government wants businesses to operate in a transparent manner, it ought to be the first to practise it.

Such bans are also not a good signal to investors. No investor wants to risk their money and time in a marketplace where rules are applied at whim. The eventual goal of investors is not to endure losses but to maximise profits. The existence of uncertainty shakes their con­fidence. Such bans are also not a good signal to our own entrepreneurs who are trying to bootstrap their companies in this challenging environment.

Openness can spur economic activity. According to economic historian Joel Mokyr, the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe and not in China or elsewhere because in Europe people were able to challenge authority figures. And failure was more acceptable in Europe. So instead of banning things imprudently, our policymakers should pay heed to Mokyr’s research.

Another aspect of a ban on a digital application is that it can take away a platform from the weak and oppressed. Technology is a great equaliser. Using digital applications, the weak and oppressed can voice opinions, share joy, and vent grief alongside the powerful. The state must rethink its bans.

By banning a digital application for the poor and weak, the rich and powerful have the last laugh. With every passing day those less fortunate are finding it hard to voice their opinion, while the powerful, with more means at their disposal, can loudly voice theirs at a time and place of their choosing. The poor’s access to tools they can use to vent and play has decreased while at the same time those in power have increased their reach to curb voices. The state must rethink its bans.

The writer is an author and an entrepreneur.

Twitter: @wyounas

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2020