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Pakistan overturns TikTok ban after app promises to block ‘obscene’, ‘immoral’ accounts

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Pakistan overturned its ban on TikTok on Monday, only ten days after first banning it for allowing “indecent”, and “immoral” content. TikTok’s management assured the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority that that they will block all accounts which are repeatedly involved in spreading obscenity and immorality, as per a statement by the regulator. The company has also agreed to moderate content in accordance with local laws. We have reached out to TikTok to understand the terms it had to accept to be able to operate in Pakistan, and which “local laws” it has to comply with.

The app was banned in Pakistan on October 9 after PTA claimed it had received a number of complaints against “immoral/indecent” content on the video sharing platform. At the time, PTA had said that it had given TikTok “considerable time” to develop a framework to moderate “unlawful content”. However, at the same time, it had left the door open for TikTok to be able to operate in the country should it agree to create a “satisfactory mechanism” to moderate content.

In a statement on October 17 — two days before overturning the ban — TikTok had reportedly said that it can assess allocation of resources towards the Pakistani market, if Pakistan decided to remove the ban on TikTok. It also said that after the app was banned in the country, it continued to engage with the PTA to further enhance its content moderation policies, however, “though the PTA acknowledged and appreciated these efforts, our services remain blocked in the country and we have received no communication from PTA”.

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TikTok’s ban — seen as a censorship issue — was met with opposition in the country. Sherry Rehman, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Senate of Pakistan called the government’s clampdown on TikTok a “disturbing trend”. “Why r the govt and PM making moral policing their top priority ?? Doesn’t Pakistan have other pressing challenges to worry about? Whether its the TikTok ban or tv adverts, the invidious label of  “vulgarity” is being used for clamping on sweeping restrictions. Disturbing trend (sic)”, she had tweeted following TikTok’s ban.

Nighat Dad, a Pakistan-based digital and women’s rights lawyer, in a statement to Forbes following the TikTok ban had said that the ban was being seen as unconstitutional, and violative of people’s fundamental rights. She also said that the decision to ban TikTok lacked any sort of transparency.

Censorship in Pakistan

Pakistan is no stranger to censorship. In July, as Pakistan issued a final warning to TikTok over what it deemed unlawful content, the country had banned Chinese live-streaming app Bigo for similar reasons. “A number of complaints had been received from different segments of the society against immoral, obscene and vulgar content on social media applications particularly TikTok and Bigo, and their extremely negative effects on the society in general and youth in particular”, PTA had said at the time. In August, Pakistan had directed YouTube to immediately block all “objectionable” content in the country, and to put in place an effective content moderation mechanism. In September, the country had banned Tinder, Grindr, and three other apps after deeming them “immoral” and “indecent”.

Before that, Pakistan had blocked YouTube for three years, up until 2016. The company was allowed to restore services only after it launched a local version that allowed the Pakistani government to demand removal of offensive content. Pakistan had banned YouTube in September 2012 after an anti-Islam movie, “Innocence of Muslims“, was uploaded, sparking violent protests in Pakistan’s major cities.

Earlier this year, Pakistan had notified rules governing social media companies, which mandated content takedowns within 24 hours, data localisation and having physical office in Pakistan. However, the government later backtracked on the rules, buckling under pressure from Big Tech companies, and said that it would host a broad based consultation to finalise the rules. However, more than 100 civil society organisations at the time had said that they would boycott the consultation since the rules were devised “in bad faith”. The rules had come under intense criticism from the global and Pakistani businesses and civil society for impinging on people’s privacy and freedom of expression.

TikTok’s struggles

TikTok’s struggles aren’t unique to Pakistan. The ByteDance-owned app was banned in India in June, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, after the government called these apps a threat to national security and privacy. Since then, the Indian government has banned another 165 Chinese-origin apps over national security concerns, including popular gaming app PUBG.

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In the US, the Trump administration issued two executive orders essentially banning TikTok in the country, and directing ByteDance of its American assets. Following that, ByteDance, Oracle, and Walmart appeared to have reached a tentative deal, where the two American companies would  acquire a 20% stake in TikTok’s global business as part of a pre-IPO financing round. US President Donald Trump even approved the deal in concept and gave it his “blessing”.

However, that was until ByteDance claimed that it will control 80% of the newly formed entity — TikTok Global. Following ByteDance’s statement, Trump threatened that he will not approve the deal if TikTok Global isn’t controlled by an American company.

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