TikTok is a data collection service pretending to be a social network

Instead of banning it every few months, the PTA needs to come up with a proper censorship framework

Another day, another ban. The PTA banned TikTok again on July 21st, 2021 on the basis that there is the continuous presence of inappropriate content on the online platform and its failure to take such content down. This step has been taken under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. It is a step that has been taken so many times now it is exhausting. 

The question that arises is that whilst the same content is available on different platforms, TikTok seems to be an easy target to suspend and ban. Is this decision taken in haste? Or are the millions of people on this platform denied access because they are not considered particularly important? 

If one considers carefully, in fact, there is no need to even consider it carefully. Just the slightest attention, the most sparing of thoughts, a bare glance will tell you that all social media apps are filled to the brim with vulgar content and there is no way to stop it. It is viewed directly or indirectly by millions of users either intentionally or unintentionally. However, banning these social media apps on the basis of such content without blocking the material on it creates a mockery of the notices and tweets that are published by regulators. 

If one video/post is not posted/published on one online platform the same is posted on the other platform that is available and gets the same likes and followings thus creating a Streisand effect. So if you ban TikTok, someone can simply use a VPN to post something there and then another person with a VPN can find it on TikTok and post it to twitter or facebook. At the end of the day, the content is still out there, and because of the ban it might actually foster more interest. And at the end of the day, it makes the regulator look silly because it becomes apparent that the people that are supposed to be regulating social media do not understand it at all. 

Regulators in different countries and especially here in Pakistan need to realize that these social media apps developed in China have different laws and regulations under which they are developed. There are strict government rules and regulations inside China where there is censorship for users over its platforms to comply with local laws and regulations. Speaking of which, when these apps are internationally marketed and move beyond China the playing field becomes vast and the censorship medium is kind of disabled. Consequently, people have vastly different experiences when using these apps and posting content online. 

Here, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority being the regulator, needs to step up and have a censorship framework and policy which needs to be either highlighted to these companies or implemented through local operators. Imposing a ban citing vulgar content on the platform and removing millions of videos may not be a long-term viable option and may not hold for long. Despite being an Islamic republic and constitution highlights that way of life shall be following the fundamentals of Islam the overall censorship should be across the board on all social media apps having such vulgar content.

On the other hand, citing “national security concerns” in respect of such a ban may have a different viewpoint altogether. These social media apps, particularly TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, are headquartered in Beijing and with strict government controls over companies the Chinese government could compel them to share personal data of foreign nationals/ users. This area could possibly be a scenario for the local regulators and economic and political decision-makers to ponder over. 

Furthermore, considering the geopolitics of the region and the growing influence of China in Pakistan, does Pakistan really want to get in this 5th generation warfare by banning social media apps on the basis of security concerns is the question for the higher-ups. With the Pegasus scandal round the corner and cybersecurity concerns at their peak, this can open a plethora of questions on the cybersecurity of Pakistan

Pakistan having the best tech minds needs to up its antics with a comprehensive cybersecurity policy and need to have the various applications scrutinized before allowing them since banning and suspension of one app over and over again is a temporary solution and not a permanent one. 

Hamza Nizam Kazi
Hamza is a corporate and technology lawyer having experience in the telecom industry and advising digital startups. He can be reached on [email protected] for advice on legal and regulatory issues pertaining to the telecom sector and electronic media.

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