IN an exercise which bears all the telltale signs of a clampdown on the freedom of expression, the government has approved a set of rules through which it plans to regulate social media. Under these directives, social media giants such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and others will be required to establish a physical presence in Pakistan, register an office in three months, set up database servers here in the coming year and oblige the government when it requests user data and content. The rules also dictate that the tech companies remove content deemed ‘extremist’ by the government — failure to do so will result in a Rs500m fine. What is most troubling is how broadly these rules define extremism, as “violent, vocal or active opposition to fundamental values of the state including the security, integrity or defence of Pakistan, public order, decency or morality, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Government spokespersons have offered various justifications for these measures. Fawad Chaudhry says the move is an economic decision which will increase advertising revenue. The PTA suggested these rules are a statutory requirement to initiate official engagement with these tech giants. Firdous Ashiq Awan revealed that the regulations will help protect ‘national integrity’. Some also point out that it is, in fact, the PML-N-sanctioned Peca which formed the legal basis for these rules. But without the scrutiny of parliament or input from digital rights groups, these rules raise serious questions and are yet another reminder of how eager the state is to gain access to encrypted citizen information. No doubt, authorities have legitimate concerns about the presence of hate speech, terrorism and child pornography on these forums. The government has also voiced its reservations against the selective editorial discretion of these platforms when it comes to the Kashmir issue. While there are genuine concerns, there is also the reality that Pakistan has a history of controversially invoking notorious euphemisms such as ‘morality’, ‘security’ and ‘integrity’ to justify its control of free speech. Activists and journalists have been harassed under similar pretexts. The recent trend of the state pursuing sedition cases against those critical of alleged state excesses is an example of the authoritarian approach to dissenting voices. In this environment, the manner in which these ominously worded rules were hurriedly released is cause for deep concern and are rightly being criticised.

The Asia Internet Coalition , which is an industry association of tech companies, has categorically stated that the rules appear to erode the personal safety and privacy of citizens and that they also undermine free expression. They have urged the government to ‘reconsider’ them. If the government wishes to engage with these companies and is sincere about a digital economy, it would be better off adopting a less hostile and more transparent approach.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2020

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