THE Asia Internet Coalition has once again struck back against Pakistan’s Removal of Unlawful Online Content Rules, 2021, describing the latest version (published last month by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication) as containing all the same “problematic provisions” as previous drafts, with only “minor changes”. Echoing concerns of local rights advocates and digital experts, the association of major technology firms also noted with alarm that these rules go far beyond the scope of its parent act, the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The rules are also currently being challenged in the Islamabad High Court on the grounds of being unconstitutional, a development which had at least led to the attorney general conceding the need for more stakeholder consultation. That was in April. Some months later, given the absence of any substantive feedback being incorporated into the rules, it is apparent that despite sustained attempts to engage with lawmakers in good faith, human rights defenders’ concerns continue to fall on deaf ears, validating their worst fears regarding the state’s intentions for digital governance.
The centrepiece of an explicit and relentless drive to monitor and control virtually all aspects of our lives, the rules are impractical, oppressive and guaranteed to cause immense social and economic harm. There is no imaginable outcome in which they will lead to progress and growth — rather, they are designed to afford the state even more excessive and arbitrary powers, with little to no oversight and accountability. The cost of this campaign to forcefully promote a statist monoculture will be paid for by citizens for decades to come, as every avenue for creativity and innovation is stifled. Since the rules were first floated, the government has led stakeholders down a meandering path of insincere dialogue. But unless it wishes to plunge the country into a digital dark age, there is only one course of action it must undertake: denotify the rules and commit to a comprehensive overhaul of Peca.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2021
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