A day after the government notified rules that define how social media will be governed in Pakistan, technology companies announced that the regulations would make it difficult for them to continue their operations in the country. The rules titled, “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020,” have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca).
The tech companies warned that the rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. Under the new rules, social media companies shall provide the designated investigation agency with any information or data in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format. Subject to justifiable technical limitations, the information to be provided may include subscriber information, traffic data, content data and any other information or data. “The draconian data localisation requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world,” the AIC said.
The new rules on social media are described by the authors as intended to prevent live streaming of online content relating to “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security. It is something good however the worrying part e is that the definition around extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have these unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state.
Though the rules have been seen as squeezing the freedom of speech yet the other side of the story is quite different. Pakistan’s arch rival India is actively using social media with fake accounts to spread anarchy and chaos in Pakistan. Despite complaints, reports and extensive correspondence by authorities and social media users from Pakistan, very little action is taken against these sources of disinformation from India. On the other hand, social media accounts from Pakistan are routinely reprimanded, blocked, and suspended for legitimate and rightful freedom of expression.
The unfortunate fact is that few of the Pakistani digital rights activists such as Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation and other social media activists working for western sponsored NGOs are mostly focused on violations of rules by Pakistani users, infringements of digital rights within the domestic social media space and providing a critique of Pakistani users purported association or support for government information related institutions such as the PID, PEMRA or ISPR, instead of defending social media space in Pakistan against disinformation from other countries.
For regulators and government’s information departments in Pakistan, it is plausible to take steps to regulate social media content posted domestically, but the challenge arises when it comes to the regulation of social media content flowing into Pakistan. But this issue is not limited to Pakistan, governments around the world have found it a challenge to regulate their domestic social media space from hostile, unethical and illegal content flowing from overseas.