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PTA’s Banning Spree

Published 22 Sep, 2020 03:29pm
Why banning content and apps is a counterproductive exercise.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is on a banning spree. Applications are the new frontier where PTA is waging the battle to safeguard the young people and morals of Pakistani society – or so it wants everyone to believe. The latest casualties are Grindr, SayHi, Skout, Tagged and Tinder.

The press release announcing the ban lumps together dating and live streaming applications – Grindr, SayHi, Skout, Tagged and Tinder – and cites “negative effects” due to the “availability of immoral/indecent content” as the reason for blocking them. Like others before them, they too were supposedly issued “notices” to “moderate live streaming content in accordance with the local laws of Pakistan.” YouTube was also contacted by the PTA shortly after and asked to put in place an “effective content moderation system for Pakistan” which is “compliant with local laws, societal norms.”

Trouble is, there exists no uniform standard for “societal norms” or “decency and morality.” The way these are currently interpreted and applied is based on PTA’s definition and application of the terms. There is an unnatural obsession with “immorality,” “vulgarity” and “obscenity” in Pakistan. Years ago, medical students reached out to say they were unable to access breast cancer research and could only do so in a roundabout manner by searching for ovarian cancer. In the many filtering attempts over the years, it appears the word “breast” was considered obscene and all content bearing any reference to the word was blocked.

Interpretation of ‘local law’ is also entirely vague and used as a way to target political speech. Company transparency reports reveal attempts to stifle political discourse disguised as violations of local law. In 2018, various Pakistani Twitter users – lawyers, academics and journalists – received emails from the platform, informing them that “official correspondence” flagged the tweets to be “in violation of Pakistani law.” These tweets pertained to a discussion of military courts, murders of SP Tahir Dawar and Syed Ali Raza Abidi, a picture with PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen and critique of the government’s inaction against Tehreek-e-Labbaik leader, Khadim Rizvi. Google’s transparency report records a request from the PTA seeking the removal of a Google Drive file “containing the content of an open letter from concerned faculty members across several universities in Pakistan regarding academic freedom and increased repression on university campuses.” These are the details provided by Google regarding the request: “The letter details academic events that were cancelled, the dismissal of professors, and cancelling of courses which encourage critical thinking. The government authority cited Section 11 on “Hate speech” and Section 37 on “Unlawful online content” as the legal basis for removal.

However, the suppression of speech and arbitrary action is not limited to the realm of website and application blocking, or sending requests to platforms to remove content. A spate of FIRs have been registered against journalists and activists in the last few days, for their views on social media. Hate speech, defamation, sedition are among the charges levelled. Interestingly, Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 features alongside Sections 11 and 20. Section 37 is not even an offence, but the overbroad and arguably unconstitutional section of the law that allows the PTA to arbitrarily block and ban.

Bans are quite often met by a placatory response, especially when couched in a paternalistic narrative: protection of children and women. Surprisingly, the response to PUBG’s suspension was different. On July 1, 2020, the PTA, through a press release, announced the suspension of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) game in response to complaints received “from different segments of society.” According to the press release, PTA declared the game to be “addictive,” and a “wastage of time.” The press release stated that the game posed a “serious negative impact on the physical and psychological health of the children.” Gamers in Pakistan were livid. They trended hashtags against PTA and the outrage was loud and visible. The e-sports industry in Pakistan became the subject of conversation. In an unprecedented move, PUBG challenged the ban in court. In the case of Pakistan, companies (especially larger corporations)- choose to engage with PTA directly rather than take them to court. It is usually through backdoor channels that agreements are reached, many times, at the cost of users.

Typically, PTA provides no notice or hearing – a practice that was corrected by the Islamabad High Court (IHC), reminding PTA that due process is necessary. It appears PTA’s attempts since have been focused on how to narrowly meet the requirements of the law and achieve its aims of exerting greater content control. Passing an order in the petition seeking a ban on PUBG, the Lahore High Court (LHC) instructed PTA to hear the complainants and then reach a decision. After conducting a hearing on July 9, PTA announced through a press release on July 23, 2020, that it would keep PUBG blocked. This, despite an IHC order to lift the ban.

How could PTA violate a court order, questioned many. Conveniently, it seemed technicality prevailed. Since the petition had challenged the initial order by PTA, the July 9 hearing and subsequent order was a fresh one. While announcing that the ban would remain, PTA said in the press release that it had approached PUBG’s management “to share data about PUBG sessions and users in Pakistan and controls in place by the company.” It was not until July 30, when PUBG officials met with PTA that it “expressed its satisfaction on measures adopted” by PUBG and “emphasised on continued engagement and a comprehensive control mechanism,” that the game was unblocked.

While PUBG remained banned, PTA issued another press release. On July 20, citing “complaints from different segments of society against immoral, obscene and vulgar content on social media applications and their negative effects on society in general and the young in particular.” PTA announced t had issued notices to TikTok and Bigo “under law to moderate the socialization and content within legal and moral limits, in accordance with the laws of the country.” Remarking that the response was unsatisfactory, PTA said it had decided to ban Bigo and “issue final warning to TikTok to put in place a comprehensive mechanism to control obscenity, vulgarity and immorality through its social media application.” TikTok issued a statement saying it had “removed 3,728,162 user videos that were found in violation of regulations from Pakistan from July 1 to December 31, 2019, according to its transparency report.” It pointed to its community guidelines and explained its moderating tools.

Bans are counterproductive. When YouTube was banned in 2012 on account of a blasphemous video, traffic to the video surged globally. What had been an obscure video and existed on the platform four months prior to the bans, shot to prominence as a result of the bans. Be it the ban on Bigo or the more recent one on dating and live stream applications, more people find out about such applications or content on them, once bans are imposed.

The deliberate carrot-and-stick approach employed by PTA is an old trick to achieve certain aims: threaten to block, go ahead and ban, and only restore the platform if requests are satisfactorily met. Case in point: YouTube ban. After imposing a blanket ban on the platform, it was unblocked after YouTube launched a .pk domain. All such recent activity is symptomatic of the entrenchment of the regime under Citizens’ Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 – a revised version of which is due to make a comeback. The Rules seek to compel companies to localise and accede to content and data requests made by the PTA.

Recently, PTA through a notification informed network operators about the “high volume of immoral content” served through Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and instructed them to ensure it does not reach users. PTA also sought a compliance report, warning of regulatory action in case of non-compliance. While immorality is high on the list of priorities, user complaints against operators about denial of services or lack of quality of service – which fall under PTA’s consumer directorate mandate as a telecom regulator – does not figure anywhere.

In July 2020, ISPs in Karachi decided to “protest” what they deemed the deliberate snapping of wires by a “utility company” by holding consumers hostage. Complaints were filed with PTA through their online portal. After a month, the only update PTA provided was that the complaint had been “resolved.” None of the issues raised in the complaint were addressed, no explanation offered, no reasoning provided at any stage. Tracking the complaint online only showed that the complaint had been forwarded to the ISP for action. Despite flagging the “resolution” by PTA as unsatisfactory in response to the feedback solicited via their process, there has been no follow up.

Digital Pakistan?

The writer is a co-founder of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group.