Censoring freedoms

24 Oct 2020

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The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

THERE seems to be no respite from state censorship. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked TikTok — a video-sharing app most popular among young people, which has been downloaded 43 million times in the country — on a whim, citing complaints about “immoral, vulgar, and obscene content” on the app.

It is important to explore the probable motivations behind the censorship of this popular app, the powers of censorship under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, the anti-democratic nature of such censorship, the practical issues with banning apps and its economic impact.

The PTA had sent a “final warning” to TikTok in July 2020 to moderate “obscene and immoral” content, to which TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance responded stating that the company had already removed 3.7 million videos in the last six months of 2019, of which their moderation system had proactively removed 98.2 per cent even before a user had reported them; of these 98.2pc, 89.4pc were removed before anyone had viewed them through the app’s inbuilt mechanisms that use artificial intelligence.

It is important to note that TikTok’s community guidelines specifically do not allow nudity or sexually explicit content. What, then, is the content that the PTA finds so outrageous that the app was banned for 10 days?

TikTok is used for all types of video content. It grew popular because of lip-syncing videos to music, acting, dance, and is also a popular medium for political commentary, satire and very importantly, representation of marginalised voices. Whereas the extent of reach is only to areas where internet is available and people can afford a smartphone, Pakistan is now said to have over 84m internet connections. TikTok has gained popularity in smaller towns and villages where literacy rates are too low for active participation on text-based platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but the video medium and user-friendly interface of TikTok requires little literacy and has hence become an engine for creativity.

Can we not utilise these very apps to put forward the messages we want to encourage?

Some of the most popular TikTok content creators include a small village farmer who showcases his life on the farm and shares anecdotes and wisdom narrated by his uncle, gymnasts who display their talent and stunts, and singers from small towns with beautiful melodious voices. These voices have little representation in the mainstream media and even social media, but find prominence through TikTok.

So it could very well be that the complaints against and blocking of TikTok have to do with the patriarchal discomfort with young girls showcasing their creativity, and unease with relatable and viral political commentary through short videos.

It is also a soft target for invoking ‘morality’ and ‘obscenity’ without really defining the parameters or yardsticks used to make such determination.

And that is exactly the kind of overbroad powers that Section 37 of Peca empowers the PTA with. Whereas the Constitution’s Article 19 guarantees the right to freedom of speech subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of a few provisos including “decency and morality”, the reasonableness is meant to be interpreted by honourable judges of the superior judiciary — not officers of the telecom regulator. But when that happens, and when due process intended in the law is flouted, such arbitrary bans take shape.

This also threatens our democracy. Should the entertainment, joy and livelihood of 20m-plus active users of the app be cut off one day by the arbitrary decision of some unelected officers? And more importantly, in the words of Aitzaz Ahsan who said this when YouTube was blocked for almost four years, should we burn down an entire library if we disapprove of a few books within it?

Moreover, is it really possible to ‘ban’ immorality, obscenity and vulgarity? Where are we teaching decency? Are we teaching our youth the principles of respecting each other, treating women as equal human beings, being tolerant of diverse views and respecting minority groups? Will blocking an app address the evils in our society? Can we not utilise these very apps to put forward the messages we want to encourage instead of blocking them? And is it even technically possible to completely block access to an app, given advancement in technology that makes circumventing blocks and bans very simple?

Speaking of practicality, the impact of such arbitrary censorship on the economy must also be considered on two levels.

First, the app under question is a source of livelihood for thousands of content creators. Artistic freedoms are covered under freedom of speech, but are also a major source of income for so many people. In an economy where unemployment is rife, such new avenues need to be encouraged by the government. TikTok content creators often collaborate with companies that seek to market goods and services to their audiences, while allowing creative freedom to content creators. When YouTube was blocked for around four years in Pakistan, Pakistani content creators were unable to compete with creators around the world who progressed over those four years.

Second, there is the impact of such a ban on the overall economic outlook for Pakistan. Would investors, especially in the technology sector, be willing to invest in an economy where entertainment, educational apps and even video games face arbitrary bans? This creates uncertainty for local and international investors, besides content creators.

Lastly, the TikTok ban could very well be a message to other social media companies: listen to government demands for censorship of content on social media that may go beyond global standards, or face a ban. And this message is going to reverberate formally through the newly drafted Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020, that require social media companies to set up local offices and databases, and accede to government demands for censorship or risk being banned.

If we are to uphold our democratic system, constitutional rights, a creative community, and an innovation- and growth-based economy, censorship must stop.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2020