An alarming nexus

02 Dec 2018


The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

PAKISTAN is no stranger to state-enforced censorship. Traditional media has been relatively easy to censor as most offices are based in Pakistan, and tugging licences or intimidating operators has been easy. But, with the internet’s advent, marginalised Pakistanis found a voice. What is alarming now is that tech companies based abroad have started to give in to government requests for censorship, euphemistically called ‘content restriction’.

Facebook’s latest transparency report shows the highest number of government requests for content restriction were from Pakistan — a staggering 2,203, or 14 per cent of total content restrictions in the world.

Twitter, known for turning down government requests, has recently sent notices to Pakistani Twitter users, including some in exile, due to threats from state actors, warning them against criticising government policies. This means that PTA and FIA are sending a high number of requests, and owing to broad powers under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016, companies are complying. Reports of such online censorship should set off alarm bells.

Tech companies have begun to cede to requests for censorship.

The first issue is overly broad legislation, especially Peca’s Section 37 relating to “unlawful” online content, which is used in content takedown requests from the government. Section 20 dealing with “offences against dignity of a natural person” has been broadly applied to criticism of state institutions and leaders. In the presence of Section 21 that deals with “offences against the modesty of a natural person and minor”, it is nothing more than a tool to silence dissent, and must go.

Such blatant censorship through legislation contravenes the fundamental right of freedom of speech, expression and press guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution. The new parliament must work towards amending Peca by removing Sections 20 and 34 to protect democratic rights that enable progress through criticism of state policies rather than silencing it.

The provisos in Article 19 must not be applied in a narrow sense under Peca’s Section 37 by officers of the executive in law-enforcement agencies, but through decisions that must be arrived at after careful assessment of impact on rights by a higher court.

The second issue these reports raise is the compliance by technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google to the unreasonable, authoritarian requests by the state. This compliance is evident from the federal information minister’s statement calling on Twitter to comply with requests from the government the way Google and Facebook have, soon followed by Twitter warning journalists and activists against criticism of the government.

Whereas taking to task user accounts that incite violence is legitimate, warning notices to journalists and activists shows that the state has been abusing the broad language of the law to silence its critics. Technology corporations must not become party to this abuse, but serve the rights of users. Otherwise, they risk becoming mere tools of censorship in the hands of a authoritarian regimes.

Driven by profits, technology companies are not new to colluding with oppressive regimes. For instance, Google’s dragonfly project involves developing an app that’s compliant with China’s censorship regime. And it was recently revealed that Facebook hired a right-wing PR firm to counter criticism of the Cambridge Analytica hack.

It is high time that technology companies start respecting the human rights of users under Section 2 of the UN’s guiding principles on Business and Human Rights that deals with the corporate responsibility to protect human rights. It states: “Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they sho­uld avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.” Violating the right to freedom of speech and privacy contravenes these principles that companies with billions of users should adhere to.

At the same time, the Pakistani government is responsible, by virtue of its social contract through votes and taxes paid by citizens, to work to serve and protect their basic rights. When citizens criticise the government’s policies and state institutions that directly impact them and function on their taxes, it should be welcomed and taken into account rather than dismissed and penalised.

It is clear that a critical mass of the voice of citizens is paramount to effect change in the behaviour of the state and technology companies. This change must be led by citizen groups that give feedback to the government and state institutions, and legislators, especially the standing committees entrusted with such substantive responsibilities. Technology companies should take a principled position in the democratic interests of it users, rather than colluding to silence critical voices.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2018