Regulate; Not Censor: Pakistan’s Internet Censorship Regime Threatens Small Businesses

Muhammad Azam Khan hails from Chiniot in Pakistan’s eastern province of Punjab. The 26-year-old started promoting his art business through TikTok, an app owned by China-based ByteDance, in mid-2020. The platform facilitates content creators and the rewards in the form of instant attention are immediate. Soon, Azam Arts had 1.5 million followers on TikTok and many of them were checking out the linked Instagram shop and commissioning portraits. Then, in October 2020, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) announced a ban on the app, citing that it hosts “immoral and indecent” content. Khan’s sales plummeted since TikTok was his largest source of traffic, and his business fell about 70 percent.

Ubab Nadeem is a 21-year-old woman from Karachi who runs thehijabdotcom, and sells scarves and other accessories. Much like Azam, she swears by TikTok for promoting her business. “I had around 700-800 unique visitors each day on my website after a video went viral. If you use the app consistently, you can reap the benefits easily,” she says. But it is difficult to use a platform consistently when you do not know when it will be banned again. The reach of Nadeem’s e-commerce shop decreased when the app was blocked in Pakistan. The number of orders out the door also fell.

Pakistan has banned TikTok four times, the last being July 2021, for failing to take down “immoral content” from the platform. It was restored in November the same year after the video-sharing platform gave assurances that it will take measures to “control unlawful content per local laws and societal norms.”

Muhammad Ashfaq Jutt is a mixed martial artist from Lahore who joined TikTok to “help people stay in shape.” He shared clips of himself doing jumping jacks to stay connected with clients while his kickboxing centres were closed during the pandemic. He too took the hit when the app was banned, but unlike many other content creators and small business owners, Jutt took his grievances to the courts. He challenged the TikTok ban in Islamabad High Court soon after the first ban in October 2020, and demanded the government to justify how exactly content on the platform could be called objectionable. He argued that the ban violated his freedom of expression and also harmed his livelihood through the platform.

TikTok has enabled small businesses to reach an audience that they might not be able to reach on other social media websites without having to spend a hefty amount on marketing budget. On TikTok, there is a promise of an audience. However, some may argue that even if one social media platform gets banned, others such as Instagram do exist for promotion. It merits a mention that not all platforms are as lucrative for small business owners as TikTok is. Danielle Sharaf, a technology entrepreneur, argues that while conventional players still prefer Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for marketing purposes, TikTok has more space for content creators.

Many features on conventional social media apps are not immediately and widely available in Pakistan, leading to small businesses and content creators struggling to reach their audience through various marketing strategies. Where a content creator in India, for instance, with access to new in-app features can compete on a global level, Pakistani creators are always late in adopting these features owing to their unavailability in the country. As a result, not only do they have to put up with app-based restrictions, on top of it, they find themselves bearing the brunt of the government’s censorship as well.

Amna Sahito, a 30-year-old woman in Islamabad, runs Artext Notebooks on Instagram. As a one-person enterprise, everything from inventory, customer service, social media and sales falls on her shoulders. She complains about the difficulty of promoting one’s business on Instagram, “It just doesn’t work for me. Unless you promote a product by sponsoring a post, the algorithm makes it very difficult to get a good reach.” Nadeem explains why this happens, “The social media network’s algorithm is prioritising Reels, which are not widely available in Pakistan. Neither does Instagram music work properly in the country, which is another hurdle for small businesses.”

Internet Censorship

The tale of internet censorship in Pakistan is as old as time. The country banned Facebook for two weeks in May 2010 over a competition inviting people to draw pictures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Services of the website were restored after the social media company promised, “nothing of this sort would happen in the future.” One prominent event that set Pakistan’s digital transformation back multiple years was the four-year ban on YouTube in September 2012 over a blasphemous video uploaded on the leading video-sharing site. Other platforms such as Dailymotion and Vimeo emerged but could not gain the popularity that YouTube had. It was finally unbanned after nearly four years in 2016.

Muzamil Hasan is a content creator whose first YouTube video went viral in the same month that YouTube was banned in — September 2012. It was picked up by leading publications globally including The Guardian and MSNBC. In a podcast in 2020, Hasan revealed how he felt he was on to the beginning of a very successful journey through YouTube. But his dreams were brought to a halt when just a couple days later, the website was banned. “I had not yet emerged from the high of internet fame when I heard the news,” he said. He tried to operate his venture, Lolz Studios that he started with a couple of friends, through Facebook but it did not offer as fertile a space for vlogging as YouTube. Eventually, Lolz Studios was disbanded in 2015. Hasan comments that the ban significantly set back the progress of Pakistan’s content creation industry. Referring to a now-successful YouTube channel “The Viral Fever” from India with 10.9 million subscribers, he says,, “[It] started around the same time [as Lolz Studios]. But while we were trying to circumvent the YouTube ban, they benefited from the lucrativeness of the platform. They received millions of dollars in funding recently and have also inked deals with Netflix.”

Haroon Baloch is a Senior Project Manager at Bytes for All, a research think tank with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies. He shares that while there was no significant monetisation of content on the website at that time, people and business owners who incorporated the use of the website were affected. “A lot of content on YouTube indirectly affects economic activity because business owners depend on the information on that platform to offer services and develop products,” he says.

However, government officials and regulators have constantly maintained that online censorship is an important step to cater to cultural sensitivities in the country. Dr. Zartash Afzal Uzmi is a member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on IT and Telecom. The task force was formed in 2018 to “advise policy changes and develop strategic plans to strengthen the technology ecosystem of Pakistan,” but the issue of internet censorship is yet to come up in its meetings. Looking back on the YouTube ban, Uzmi argues, “I don’t think PTA had any choice apart from banning the website. We have to take cultural sensitivities into account. He adds, “Perhaps, it should not have gone on for so long. Many other countries, including Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blocked the website when that blasphemous video emerged but lifted the ban soon after.”

Commenting on the impact of the ban on millions of YouTube consumers in the country, Uzmi said, “There is always collateral damage but I believe PTA followed due process. We did not have the means to ban one video, and YouTube had no legal presence in Pakistan and could not be approached as such.”

As of 2022, Pakistani influencers and content creators are making money through the platform but it does not match the global standards. Shamama-Tul Amber is a digital artist based in Islamabad who uploads Procreate tutorials on her YouTube channel. She has just over 2,000 subscribers and her most popular video has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

Amber shares that Pakistani YouTubers do not get paid as well as their counterparts in other countries. “We have to face so many issues and deductions while collecting our Adsense payments,” she voices out. But the website still offers the 28-year-old a creative outlet as well as a way to make some extra cash. Even when she does not upload content for a while, her channel keeps on generating revenue from old videos, becoming a passive source of income. “It’s not a lot but I get a cheque for $200 every other month. There is better value for the time I spend freelancing on YouTube from the comfort of my room than through other channels,” she says.

She calls on the authorities to facilitate content creators: “The least the government could do is to accommodate us. Pakistanis have so much potential. We need to resolve existing issues [with regards to censorship] and understand how important these platforms are for our growth on different levels as a nation,” she says. She is worried that going by the track record of online censorship in Pakistan, this income stream could be taken away at any moment. Amber shares her frustration at the government’s “empty promises” of creating a “Digital Pakistan”. Baloch from Bytes for All concurs that the government aims to create jobs but its actions, like constant online censorship, hurt the digital economy’s health.

Bigger Picture

Censorship in Pakistan is not just limited to social media networks and video blogging websites. It also impacts other private websites, such as those owned by small businesses. In a 2013 documentary, two entrepreneurs from Okara, Sidra Qasim and Ali Waqas shared the struggles they faced in Pakistan’s hostile internet landscape. They reached out to artisans in rural areas and started a shoe brand called “Hometown” in 2012. In a blogpost in 2013, Waqas wrote, “We sold our first pair on [the] 5th day of launching our website.” In August 2012, Hometown was featured as “Innovation Hero” amongst other successful entrepreneurs in Pakistan, under an initiative called Innovation Punjab Campaign by the Punjab Government in partnership with Google.  In 2014, the duo rebranded their business to Markhor which is still operational and offers locally manufactured artisanal leather shoes. They also went on to establish another globally-renowned brand Atoms, based in San Francisco.

But this success did not come easy for the duo. Within a few days of launch in 2012, the Hometown website was taken offline, and it took them a while to figure out why. It was banned in Pakistan by PTA because the URL included the word “shoe” which was also listed amongst the 400,000 keywords and websites that the authority blocked in the name of immoral content at the time. Such arbitrary and blanket bans are usual to the censorship boards and regulatory authorities in Pakistan. Azmi from the PM’s Task Force says, “Hometown was banned due to an automated tool. It was not a manual intervention and no one at PTA had anything against [entrepreneurs in general].”

Eventually, the entrepreneurs reached out to Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA). “They talked to [the] PTA on our behalf. Our website was restored after 15-20 days,” Sidra and Waqas said in the documentary. In the 2013 interview, they elaborated on why it is difficult to start a business in a country like Pakistan. “Investors say there is no guarantee when a particular marketing channel will be blocked in your country. We are unable to justify ourselves in these situations,” Sidra said.

Azmi comments that over 70 countries carry out some form of internet censorship and Pakistan is not unique. He says, “Pakistan has witnessed an e-commerce boom in the last year. Small business owners have attracted USD 300-400 million in funding from abroad. Censorship still exists, [the cybercrime law that legitimises censorship under its section 37] remains functional. How is this investment coming now?” He argues that ten years back, it was harder to attract investment not because of censorship, but due to the lack of ease of doing business. “The government has worked to improve this. E-commerce solutions have improved too. Now, it is much easier to start an internet-based business,” he says.

Finding Ways Around

Owing to constant online censorship, the public had familiarised themselves with alternate ways to access blocked content. Many people started using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access blocked platforms, including TikTok when the app got banned. But since a VPN masks the user’s identity on the internet and creates a private tunnel, it messes up traffic analytics for small businesses who rely on this data for their marketing because it hides the actual location of visitors connecting to the app through it. Azam Khan who runs Azam Arts on TikTok, shares that it also makes marketing the business difficult because the data that they acquire is not accurate. Businesses depend on this data to adapt to their marketing strategy based on what worked in the past and what did not. In addition, businesses may have to spend time and resources on evading the censorship protocols.

Sidra and Waqas, for example, used YouTube to show Italian shoemaking techniques to their craftsmen in Pakistan. “If these sites are blocked, the training aspect of our business is impacted. We use proxies to access the site but it is pretty time costly”, they shared in 2013. Despite these risks, Ubab Nadeem, who runs thehijabdotcom and has an audience based in Pakistan, says that she continued to promote her business on the platform when TikTok got banned, but the reach was low because not every TikTok user in Pakistan had downloaded a VPN.

Legal framework

The situation has worsened since the passing of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in August 2016. Section 37 of PECA empowers the PTA to arbitrarily remove content that it deems against the “glory of Islam” or “the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan” or disrupting “public order, decency or morality.” Baloch from Bytes for All finds legislation in Pakistan “very disturbing.” Unlike other jurisdictions, where courts decide on content removals, in Pakistan, a body linked to the federal government has been given that unfettered power. Policy and free expression advocates have been worried for years. Baloch argues that PECA is a “black law” that is not balanced at all. “There is an infringement of the constitutional rights to do business and the right to information. Many provisions don’t take those into account,” he asserts.

Advocate Imaan Mazari argues that Section 37 is ultra varies the Constitution of Pakistan. “The language of the law grants PTA arbitrary power to interpret constitutional terms. It is the job of constitutional courts to interpret terms like ‘public order’, and not an executive authority like PTA”, she says.

When questioned on the legislative gap, Azmi agrees that ideally, there should be some legal action to back content removals but comments that timing is of the issue too. “In some cases, there may not be much time to wait for weeks before a court rules on the issue. So, if there’s any [triggering] video or content, it will remain accessible until a decision comes. Maybe we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the PTA.” Uzmi justifies that PTA has an internal process to decide on internet bans and content removals. “Surely, they are not acting blindly. They act on intimations from people and government departments and they only take action if there are sufficient complaints against some platform.”

Azmi referred to the ban on the caller ID app Truecaller. “They had hosted a server in India, and Pakistan authorities did not feel comfortable having user data stored there. They reached out to the company but it refused to shift its server to the UAE or elsewhere, citing cost issues. The company should have cooperated since it already complied with GDPR and data localisation laws in Europe. Hence, Truecaller fizzled out after PTA banned the app and the loading time increased exponentially.”

But Mazari says that PTA is carrying out censorship, not regulation. “Because even if you regulate the internet in Pakistan, you do not have the authority to blanket ban entire platforms,” she asserts. It begs to be answered why PTA cannot carry out targeted censorship, instead of blanket bans on websites and platforms. Baloch explains the government does not have the authority to selectively ban content. “They can only talk to social media companies and request certain content to be removed. Or they can issue warnings and leave it to the user’s discretion whether they see some content or not.” Usama Khilji, a digital rights and human rights activist, adds that while PTA can block access to one particular page on a website, they cannot remove any post on a profile on a social media platform.

However, it is important to highlight that platforms like TikTok that have experienced intimidation at the hands of the regulators through repeated banning, have agreed to comply with local laws and also implement their own policies more effectively in order to mitigate risks of being banned again. As of the third quarterly report for the year 2021, Tiktok removed 6 million videos in Pakistan just from July to September 2021. The social media platform regularly gets requests from government agencies to remove content. It says that if Tiktok deems that any request is not legally valid, then it either rejects it or simply “restricts the availability of the reported content in the country where it is alleged to be illegal.”

But problems exist here too. “There is no transparency or accountability in this process. Neither the government nor the social media companies are providing any clear data on the removal of content and account bans,” Khilji says. He adds, “At least the social media companies issue transparency reports regularly, wherein they provide information on the content removals. But we are not getting this from PTA. They are not transparent about the information they request from social media companies. For example, we find out that PTA has asked for a particular tweet or account to be taken down in Pakistan when Twitter sends a notice to the user.”

Social Media Rules

In 2021, the government of Pakistan finally notified the rules of procedure for Section 37 of PECA. The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021, or commonly known as the Social Media Rules, lay down the framework under which social media companies are expected to operate in Pakistan. They are now required to remove content that the PTA deems unsuitable for the Pakistani audience. After a draft of the Rules was leaked in 2020, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a consortium of global technology companies, issued a statement that the new legislation would make it difficult for them to operate in Pakistan and the data localisation requirement will “cut off” Pakistan’s digital economy from the rest of the world. The rules have also been challenged in the Islamabad High Court and cases are pending.

Imaan Mazari says that the rules go beyond the mandate of Section 37 and of PECA itself by “empowering the PTA to degrade the services of an information system.” Mazari comments that the Rules also constitute a violation of Article 10A of the Constitution, that gives citizens the right to fair trial. “The identity of the complainant can be concealed if PTA deems it unnecessary. We are aware that this could also be a government department or intelligence agency. It is my right to know who has filed a complaint against [my content],” she adds.

The Rules state that the authority can also pass an order of its own intimation without any complaints. It rings an alarm bell for Mazari, who argues that for PTA to take down content that it deems inappropriate even if there are no complaints against it is tantamount to surveillance. Secondly, she says, PTA is an executive authority, which cannot become a party to any case.

Social Media Rules not only create a sense of intimidation among users, but also hinders the digital economy. It raises a question that what happens when a platform is banned or censored for not complying with these Rules, who would compensate the small businesses, entrepreneurs and the many content creators using these mediums with hopes to earn a living for themselves?

Mechanisms for redressal exist, but they are weak and difficult to pursue unless the aggrieved party can drive up public agitation. “One can take a case to the service tribunals. If that isn’t effective, you can go to the high court. It worked for the Awami Workers Party,” Baloch says.

The left-wing political party that Baloch mentions had their website blocked without any intimation right before the General Elections in 2018. Because there had been no written orders, they could not file for a review of the block under PECA. The party challenged the ban in the Islamabad High Court and argued that the move was in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional because “due process” had not been followed. It also ruled that PTA was not empowered to block websites, especially without giving the aggrieved party a chance of hearing.

Looking Forward

Baloch argues that the government should not involve itself in the ‘morality game’ and arbitrarily take off content because it is a personal decision for everyone. Usama Khilji agrees, “Morality is not the job of the state, but health, education, safety and security are. Even the population can’t decide on these things for itself on the whole, so how can the state?” He elaborates, “Everyone has a different code of conduct depending on their financial background, education, exposure, heritage and location.” Azmi responds that there will always be multiple opinions when deciding on the ‘morality’ of internet content. “Whoever is in power gets to decide what morality means to the rest of the country. But it does not mean all decisions on internet bans will be correct, it is rather difficult to rule on it,” he adds.

Khilji calls for Section 37 to be removed from PECA because it cannot exist in a democratic country. “It threatens the right to life in terms of livelihood because our small businesses rely on social media and internet-based technologies to earn. They are rendered unemployed when these platforms are banned,” he says. Azam Khan of Azam Arts on TikTok says, “Negativity exists on all (internet) platforms but many people are using them positively. A lot of women are earning from home through the internet. These sources of income should not be taken away from people.”

Mazari calls for including civil society and private stakeholders in discussions surrounding internet rights in Pakistan. “Across the world, conversations are still happening about what internet harm means and how it can be avoided. They are using legislation to crack down on child sexual abuse through the internet. But here, laws are being used as a weapon against state defamation.”

Quoting Robert Frost, there are “miles to go before I sleep” and much work remains to be done. Legislation in Pakistan should not remain the exercise of power that it currently is, but it must become a consultative process that takes into account the input of entrepreneurs, small business owners and other civil society stakeholders.

Aiza Tariq is a freelance writer from Lahore. She has a day job in digital marketing and is always looking for a story. Her guilty pleasure is daydreaming.

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