Last Friday, Pakistan’s telecoms regulator blocked TikTok on account of “immoral/indecent content”, apparently after a months long review. While the move may satisfy the constituency of moral policing, it disenfranchises potentially millions of users and thousands of content creators who have been using the video-sharing platform to demonstrate their creative and digital skills.
Because a rigorous cost-benefit analysis is rarely performed in Pakistan’s public policy and regulatory domains, unintended consequences of sometimes severe nature follow the badly-researched decisions. While TikTok is technically just an app, banning this platform, which has done wonders for digital literacy of potentially millions of traditionally non/semi-literate users, may reverberate across Pakistan’s nascent digital economy. Decent content is a public good, but there are ways to ensure it without banning stuff.
In a low literacy environment (in the formal sense), the digital ecosystem cannot thrive in terms of boosting cognitive and technical skills if the flow of information and communication among users is predominantly based on typing and reading text. This is where audiovisual platforms, and TikTok is one of most user-friendly AV platforms out there, have an enabling role to play in markets like Pakistan. And this also helps explain the tremendous growth TikTok has had in its short life in developing economies.
In that context, a sweeping ban ignores the positive externalities that platforms like TikTok have in developing digital skills. A lot has been written on the democratizing nature of TikTok and how it has leveled the technology field that previously favored the more well-to-do and better-educated people. In Pakistan, too, it has been pointed out repeatedly, how TikTok had empowered the common people, especially from low-income groups, to express themselves in ways both creative and disruptive.
It is also observed that the app helped political critique and cultural commentary gain new meaning and vast outreach in recent times. The voice of the common folk – who couldn't be on TV or host their YouTube channels – was finally being heard. The theory that the ruling party or the state had been led to ban TikTok because they were feeling threatened by artful expressions of dissent has gained many subscribers.
However, it must be noted that the business of banning social media isn’t new in the land of formidable pure. And the trigger is usually some real or imagined umbrage taken by the religious right. The elite in Pakistan has never been comfortable with the criticism it gets, but it doesn't go around banning things at will. The “intent” is put into "effect” whenever there is a convenient excuse ready on hand.
In the case of TikTok, it looks more like a case of regulatory overreach than religious pressure/cultural backlash, the latter being absent from public view. It is hard to say if the motivation was to genuinely police online content or provide cover for clampdown on freedom of expression. If it is the latter, more bans may be in the offing. If it is the former, better sense should prevail to let the digital economy flourish.
And lastly, it's not a good look for Pakistan. As ridiculous as it may sound, banning TikTok, an app, has been a refuge of China’s rivals lately. First, India banned the popular video-sharing app, ostensibly to display strength after a border clash with China. Then, Trump, in his anti-China rage, defied the spirit of market economy by going after TikTok, forcing it to sell its US operations to an American firm.
Given the global stakes around a seemingly harmless app, how will banning TikTok in Pakistan impact Sino-Pak relationship? Is it not an own-goal, if indeed decision-makers here are motivated to guide this long-running security partnership into an economic one? Or is it that the Iron Brother won’t mind when it comes to our affairs in Digital? In the end, Pakistan should take decisions that meet its national priorities in consonance with global obligations. But how do such self-defeating measures help the country?