IN this modern era of rapid growth and technological advancement of information and communication technology (ICT) as well as social media platforms, there are restrictions on the use of many web-based services and communication tools in many countries, including Pakistan. This is mainly on account of social, political and religious grounds.
The internet is the source of global networking operated globally and that makes national regulations questionable and a subject of debate. In Pakistan, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is the regulatory body responsible for operation, maintenance and service delivery in the field of telecommunications and ICT.
To meet national obligations of religious harmony, national security, morality, integrity and public order, various rules have been notified by the PTA in the recent past, including the most recent ones, like the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021.
The PTA has made it mandatory for digital media corporations and operators to ensure local presence and data localisation, besides ensuring mechanisms to block live streaming in case of breach of these rules. Similarly, PTA has further been asking for decrypted, readable and comprehensive formats of data in the event of complaints. Advocacy groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other non-state bodies have often contested the imple-mentation of such regulations by the PTA.
PTA in recent times has banned countless applications without the consent of the people, such as TikTok. In 2019, the PTA banned about 900,000 uniform resource locators (URLs), and currently around one million websites are banned in Pakistan.
There is an ongoing global debate under the larger umbrella of freedom of information, including advocacy by Elon Musk, regarding unfettered free speech. However, regulations and censorship are also being advocated by other quarters. The advocates of virtual freedom argue that instead of unilateral use of authority by PTA, blocking any application or website at its discretion, the public should have its voice heard against censorship rules.
They urge the government to allow free access to applications and digital media, including social media platforms, and demand taking into account public’s will before blocking internet content, services and communication services. Such advocacy groups place further emphasis on amend-ments in existing rules and procedures and processes to rule out any doubt related to virtual freedom in Pakistan.
On the other hand, due to the geopolitical significance of Pakistan as well as the social fabric and cultural implications, the advocates of regulations and censorship rely on national security as the foremost factor in their arguments. They consider unregulated traffic of unverified information as the linchpin of fifth generation and hybrid wars, especially keeping in view Pakistan’s status as a frontline state against terrorism.
There are arguments about containing religious extremism and ensuring social, moral and deep-rooted cultural values through such restrictions, besides the maintenance of public order, public health and safety through a regulated procedure of avoiding the flow of fake, false and frivolous information.
Learning from the global perspective of ensuring and adopting democratic norms in the digital media, there is an emerging need for making the internet regulatory process more inclusive and people-centric. These issues should now become part of debate in the national media, parlia-mentary processes as well as across online platforms.
The proposal of netizens’ engagement in online surveys and voting should also be given due consideration. This process must be continued rather than the introduction of watertight regulatory frameworks.
The PTA must take into account public opinion as well as cross-sectional opinion of society, including social, religious, political, administrative, legal, academic and technical segments, to shape a
decent and comprehensive regulatory framework. Lastly, due to technological progress, such a process should continue.
Adam Afzal Khan
Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2022