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Ban, un-ban, ban again

Amid a surge of TikTok users and content in the country, authorities are struggling to regulate the app

PUBLISHED September 26, 2021

Social media has rapidly changed the way people behave and act in their personal lives now. Its impact on businesses and economy has been recorded to no end either. But what has been cause for amazement is its ability to create such a surge of activity and usage that it causes a country to question its ability to cause harm and its potential ability to mar its sanctity or affect its security so much so that it leads them begin to actively regulate or ban its usage.

Similar is the case with TikTok which is an application which allows users to make videos in which they can act and dub over existing content. The application has come under criticism many times since it first launched and has faced many bans ever since. If talking about the numbers, the application has topped the most downloaded list in 2020 with 850 million downloads. The application which has been growing fast and has become a household name and is regularly used by those aged between 15 and 40 years. On July 20th, TikTok was banned by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on the basis that the content produced by the app was ‘immoral’. Before that, the app had been banned three times through court orders for the same reason.

Pakistan is a market with huge potential and TikTok has grown in popularity in the country. There is no doubt that technology has taken over a lot of things in the country but is Pakistan ready for this digital age and would companies invest in Pakistan where the rules and regulations have been far too restricting to allow them to operate and flourish? “We have been banned four times and it is never ideal to operate in such uncertain circumstances,” said TikTok Head of Government Relations and Public Policy Middle East, Turkey, Africa and Pakistan Farah Tukan, while talking to The Express Tribune.

TikTok has been undertaking major strides in Pakistan to work with the government over the last ten months to reaffirm the safety and security of the app for Pakistani users but despite that blocking of the TikTok app without due process has become common and the application has faced four bans in the span of a year. “Like in any of our markets across the world, TikTok aims to provide an entertainment platform to its users where they can freely express their creativity in a safe environment. Empowering our users to showcase their creative talent is what excites us most and this is what we aim to continue doing in Pakistan as well,” she explained.

Since content management on digital platforms is an industry-wide issue, enforcement actions on TikTok alone is unfortunate but all these bans and restrcitions does impact the users. “The uncertain regulatory environment does not only disrupt our investment plans for Pakistan but also has a severe economic impact on our Pakistani content creators, especially young adults and the underprivileged,” said Tukan. Several Pakistani businesses have used TikTok during one of the most challenging years on record to promote their products and keep their businesses afloat. However, as a result of the repeated bans, these businesses and the creators who have relied on TikTok as a critical avenue for income, have been significantly impacted.

Over the last twelve months, Tiktok has worked regarding their content moderation process and have engaged Pakistan Telecommunication Authoirty to comply with local laws and increased content moderation capacity. This practice has led to an over 300 per cent growth in local-language moderation headcount. An advanced technology system to harness a safe environment for TikTok's content creators and users have been deployed, which can detect and remove problematic content in many categories early on including nudity, sexual content, and imagery of minors, amongst others. “TikTok removed nearly 6.5 million videos from January to March of this year in Pakistan alone as a result of the enforcement of our comprehensive Community Guidelines,” she shared.

The ban followed by the reversal of those bans has created an uncertainty and naturally impacted the market. The social media application does think before investing when the government keeps banning them from being actively present. “Even after being banned four times, we have gone ahead with our investment plans for Pakistan, one of which is the hiring of local talent. However, for TikTok to be able to continue investing in Pakistan, it needs an enabling regulatory environment that empowers it,” said the government relations and public policy head.

The content creators or influencers get affected when the application gets banned and for many users, if this is the only way they earn, it can gravely impact their income. Pakistani content creator community takes great pride in the content they create for their followers. They are home-grown successes, reflecting Pakistani culture and lives, and many of them have millions of followers in Pakistan and beyond who appreciate what they create. “Our ‘Community Guidelines’ and safety policies provide additional guardrails to keep content authentic and appropriate,” said Head of Regional Product Policy APAC Trust and Safety Jamin Tan, while talking to the Express Tribune.

He also said that the efforts on content moderation in Pakistan have been acknowledged and commended both by the PTA and the Prime Minister's Committee for Social Media Rules. “We encourage users to freely express themselves, while abiding by our Community Guidelines, which were created to regulate this authentic interaction, not to limit it,” told Tan. The applicatin has recently launched a localised Safety Centre in Urdu for Pakistani audiences. The online portal is one-stop destination for all safety policies and guidelines.

How influencers see this

The content creation industry in Pakistan has rapidly grown over the past few years. Brands now increasingly see the value of working with content creators to promote their products via exciting collaborations. “Everyone uses TikTok. It doesn't matter if he is a doctor, a gamer or a person from any other profession. So when everyone is using TikTok on a daily basis then obviously other people who are influenced by that content will also start to find its way onto the TikTok platform,” said Arslan Siddiqui, a gamer and an influencer who is also a world champion of Tekken 7. “Banning TikTok did take a toll on a lot of people. The people who have been working for so long on TikTok, making content and uploading it, making a living out of that content, all that time that they invested has been wasted and nobody deserves that.”

Brands are working together with creators to tell brand stories rather than focusing entirely on products and TikTok is right in the heart of this change with the creative content creators bring to the platform. “I wish the country’s problems were small enough and easily mendable by banning apps but sadly that’s not the case. I think TikTok was a great source of entertainment and earning for many, which shouldn’t be taken away because of a few that choose to misuse it. I really do miss TikTok and wish to see content being made on it very soon, while obviously keeping in mind the community guidelines and and our country’s values,” said a Tiktoker Waliya Najib.

Globally, influencer marketing became a $9.7 billion industry in 2020 alone and is estimated to reach $13.8 billion in 2021. If banning apps continues, then Pakistan’s economy and its people will be deprived of the benefits of this industry. “TikTok was a source of earning for many who did not go against the country’s values. It can still be managed appropriately on both ends to ensure that the users and their content follows the community guidelines,” said Pir Ahmed, who has 1.8 million followers on the platform.

TikTok is an innovative and exciting vehicle for brands to reach and connect with a wide and varied audience, the users try and indulge the attention through edge-to-edge vertical videos, delivering a full-screen visually immersive experience that drives engagement and real business results. “Social media has given content creators so many opportunities to earn money and become financially independent. When there are bans on platforms like TikTok, it takes away all those opportunities. I feel regulators and social media companies should work more on educating creators on responsible content creation, rather than banning an app entirely,” said another user Khadeja Anum, adding that it can be used to educate as well.

Latest hearing on the future of the app took place on 20th September in the Islamabad High Court, whereupon PTA was unable to provide a reason for banning the app and requested the court for more time. The court has now provided a new hearing date, which is 25th September.