Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s telecommunications regulator has banned video streaming platform Bigo and issued a final notice to Chinese video social media giant TikTok over concerns they are encouraging “immoral, obscene and vulgar content”.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) said on Monday that it had earlier raised the allegations with both companies and had received responses that were “not satisfactory”.
“Therefore … PTA has decided to immediately block 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,” said a government statement.
In 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate, among other things, content on the internet, giving the PTA broad powers to block content considered to be against “the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or … public order, decency or morality”.
Rights groups said PTA had blocked more than 800,000 websites and platforms from being accessed within the country.
The list of blocked websites includes pornographic platforms, but has also included news outlets considered critical of the country’s security and foreign policies, some social media, and certain political parties’ websites.
In 2012, PTA blocked popular video-sharing website YouTube for the hosting of a trailer for an amateur film considered blasphemous against Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. That ban remained in place for four years.
Last year, in a landmark case wherein the Awami Workers Party (AWP) challenged a ban on its website, the Islamabad High Court ordered PTA to frame rules that would clearly delineate the criteria and process by which websites could be blocked.
Rights activists, however, said little had been done to make the process more transparent.
Farieha Aziz, co-founder of digital rights group Bolo Bhi, said the telecommunications authority has been exercising “blanket powers” on censorship.
“[The criteria] is just what the PTA believes or what consensus it believes exists in society,” she told Al Jazeera.
“These terms have never been defined [and] the PTA is making these decisions unilaterally and with no transparency.”
Recent research by Bolo Bhi found the telecommunications regulator had been using content reporting mechanisms with global hosting and social media companies – such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – to report political speech as being “anti-state”.
In one case, PTA reported a letter hosted on Google’s Docs cloud-based collaborative workspace written by Pakistani academics against repression on campus as being “anti-state”.
Earlier this month, the regulator suspended access to the popular online game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, better known by the acronym PUBG, saying it was “addictive, wastage of time, and poses serious negative impact on physical and psychological health of the children”.
Bigo, a Singapore-based company, provides live video streaming and video content creation services to users on its platform. Its Likee platform, popular in Pakistan, has more than 100 million global monthly users, according to company data.
The company did not immediately respond to an Al Jazeera request for comment.
Pakistan’s move to potentially ban TikTok, a social media platform that allows users to share short videos, follows a ban by authorities in neighbouring India, where the government said the app, along with 58 other Chinese software applications, was a threat to “national security” because of data privacy concerns.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign began running ads calling for supporters to sign a petition seeking a ban on TikTok over similar data privacy concerns.
Earlier this year, Australian legislators also called for greater transparency in the way the company deals with user data.
Developed by Chinese developer ByteDance, TikTok has been downloaded more than two billion times worldwide, according to technology research firm Sensor Tower.
India was the app’s largest market, with more than 611 million downloads, followed by the US with 165 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower’s data.
In Pakistan, the app is popularly used across a range of economic backgrounds to share short videos, often depicting people singing along, or lip-syncing, to popular songs; or acting out scenes overdubbed with popular Bollywood movie dialogue.
In a statement, TikTok told Al Jazeera it considered “maintaining a safe and positive in-app environment our top priority”, and had removed more than 3.7 million videos from Pakistan in the second half of 2019 for violating content guidelines.
“We are committed to further strengthening our safeguards to ensure the safety of our users, while increasing our dialogue with the authorities to explain our policies and demonstrate our dedication to user security,” the company said.
Romaisa Khan, 20, is a TikTok star in Pakistan, with 2.8 million followers and videos that regular register more than 500,000 views.
She said the platform needs stricter content moderation, especially for users who are minors, but the government should not ban it outright.
“I don’t think banning is a solution, because there are a lot of people who are earning [a living] through TikTok or getting work through TikTok, so its kind of a good thing as well,” she told Al Jazeera.
Khan’s TikTok fame helped her break through in the country’s television industry, she said, with the exposure she got on the platform helping her first get modelling jobs with large national and multinational brands. This year, it helped her land her first role in a major television soap opera.
“The industry has a lot of nepotism, and its kind of hard to break into the industry if you don’t have anything behind you,” she said. “[TikTok] helps you to get into this, people want to work with you.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim