Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Op-ed: Banning TikTok will do more harm than good

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In a move that came as a shock to many – but perhaps also as a relief to others– the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has banned the video-sharing application or App TikTok due to its ‘’immoral/indecent” content. I argue that a blanket ban on TikTok is a wrong move. Instead of solving a problem, the action will do more harm than good and is the equivalent of putting a band-aid to nurse a ‘perceived’ wound.

This isn’t about whether the move is constitutionally or legally valid. That’s a matter for the courts to decide if and when the PTA decision gets challenged. Policymakers and lawyers will have plenty of rules to justify or deny the legality of the move one way or another. Instead, this is about whether banning an App simply because it is deemed to be the vehicle for disseminating “immoral/indecent” content will lead us anywhere. Unfortunately, it won’t.

Read more: PTA bans Tinder and five other dating apps citing ‘immoral content’

Books have been written on what morality is and isn’t. Good luck to the law student or curious reader looking to define for us what is morality or immorality. Morality isn’t something set in stone. It evolves with time and we as a country are no different. Checking the “moral pulse-ometer” to gauge the citizens’ moral value system isn’t easy, if not altogether impossible.

PTA claims that the basis for the ban are complaints from different segments of society that TikTok promoted indecency and immorality. But the ban comes with no explanation as to what those “immoral” and “indecent” acts were. The PTA ban also states that “considerable time” was given to TikTok to respond and comply with the “PTA’s instructions” but no details are given as to what those instructions were. In other words, a broad brushstroke has been used to ban TikTok altogether.

Worryingly, if PTA doesn’t reverse its decision, it may form the basis of similar bans in future on devices and Apps that do not cause real harm to society

There are many media reports which suggest that TikTok had become a source of revenue for citizens with no other source of income. What about those disadvantaged segments of society who had found a new means of sustenance through TikTok? Let us put aside commerce for a while.

As society evolves, human interactions take newer forms. Today we have Apps, computers and fancy gadgets. Tomorrow, information exchange will occur through more advanced mediums. Desire to express ideas (through videos or otherwise) and engage with others, get feedback and compliments are all part of the human story. And some indecency and immorality will always configure in these exchanges.

Any device or App is inherently neutral in nature. I see TikTok as no better or worse than the laptop on which I am writing this article. My laptop isn’t speaking to me and telling me what to pen, it is I who is putting the computer to some use (in this case to express my views about the PTA’s blanket ban). In other words, an App cannot prescribe the uses it would be put to. It is always the user of a device or an App who brings to bear his/her values on the device or App.

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Some reports indicate that the ban is driven by the idea to eradicate child pornography and paedophilia that was being disseminated through TikTok. Of course, the state always has an overriding and compelling interest to eliminate this menace from society. To prevent this, one option for the state, which wasn’t considered, was to acquire moderating rights over TikTok material being disseminated. This would have prevented such material from being distributed through TikTok and enabled the state to bring the violators to justice (something we all want to see happen at the soonest).

Technology, like other things, can be put to uses both good and bad. The state must not use broad brushstrokes and impose blanket bans on devices and Apps. Instead, if the state has an interest in preventing any harm to society (e.g. child pornography), then it must completely outlaw and deter such acts through other means, e.g. by moderating content being disseminated through Apps.

Read more: Islam is not threatened by TikTok and books, Fawad Chaudhry

A blanket ban on an App because it is the means for sharing something “immoral” and “indecent” (two archaic terms that are prone to abuse because of their subjective nature) would do more harm than good to society. Worryingly, if PTA doesn’t reverse its decision, it may form the basis of similar bans in future on devices and Apps that do not cause real harm to society.

Hassan Aslam Shad is the Head of a leading Middle Eastern law firm. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, U.S.A. He can be reached at:veritas@post.harvard.edu. His Twitter handle is @HassShad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space

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