A welcome invitation

February 20, 2020

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BETTER sense has thankfully prevailed, with Prime Minister Imran Khan calling for broader consultation with all stakeholders on the controversial Citizens Protection (Against Online Harassment) Rules, 2020. Though this concession has come after widespread criticism by international media bodies, technology and business firms, rights groups and social media users alike, it is nonetheless a positive step, especially in the face of considerable misrepresentation of facts by some federal ministers about the purpose and efficacy of the new rules. It is hoped that the consultation process is not just a mere formality, and that subsequent recommendations are genuinely considered and incorporated into any new policy, rules or legislation governing online spaces — unlike the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, by the PML-N government, in which almost all suggestions made by the stakeholders were discarded.

In fact, it is the deeply-flawed Peca — which is often frivolously put to use to silence dissent — that the government claimed provided the legal grounds for this set of rules, which was quietly approved by the cabinet last month. If the government is truly committed to holding a consultation process in good faith, this would prove an opportune moment for it to open up discussion on revisiting Peca, in order to introduce amendments to address its many shortcomings and safeguard citizens’ personal rights. Section 37, for example, which defines unlawful online content in the vaguest of terms, has allowed for the widespread and arbitrary removal of social media content as well as blocking of entire websites, while Section 20 concerning the dignity of persons has been misused to silence criticism of government institutions and ministers. Other aspects of the law, which give extensive and virtually unchecked powers to law-enforcement agencies to obtain internet users’ data and block any content, also need to be revised. Another pressing issue that should be addressed during this process is the matter of personal data protection — or rather, the current lack thereof. There is a dire need for legislation that safeguards the personal information and privacy of Pakistanis. Besides threatening citizens’ fundamental rights and risking their digital safety, the ill-conceived social media policy has other serious implications. Contrary to Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s claims, according to the Asia Internet Coalition, “these rules would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy”, thus also jeopardising the prime minister’s own Digital Pakistan campaign launched in December.

From where things stand, the inclination for the PTI government to manufacture a singular public narrative to its liking might be a strong one. But attempting to do so will only frustrate them even more, while in the process alienating its urban middle class support base, as well as having serious long-term repercussions for an economy in desperate need of modernisation. However, it is not too late. There is still time to turn things around.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2020