WHILE India recently blocked social media accounts of several Pakistani diplomatic missions, it has also successfully evaded pressures from networking platforms against such bans and various state organs in Pakistan have yet to devise a counter strategy, primarily owing to the absence of any rules regulating online platforms.

In the last week of June, India blocked access to 80 Twitter accounts, including those of Pakistan’s diplomatic missions in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, the UN as well as state broadcaster Radio Pakistan, in its territory as part of its campaign to block any online content critical of the Modi government.

The Foreign Office conveyed its concerns to the Indian charge d’affaires, while the telecom operator also lodged a protest with Twitter.

India used its local laws to gradually and successfully block the flow of information from Pakistan for its social media users, while Islamabad was in no position to counter the neighbouring country’s actions in the absence of relevant rules that could compel or even threaten social media companies to restrict access to Indian official accounts in the country in a tit-for-tat move.

Despite the passage of over 10 days, none of the state institutions concerned have held even a single meeting to plan a way forward; a meeting requested by the Foreign Office and scheduled for July 6 is now likely to be held sometime after Eid holidays. The meeting was lined up with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, while other relevant organizations such as the armed forces’ media wing and the Ministry of IT were not invited.

PTA chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa told Dawn that social media companies, especially Twitter, clearly had double standards; they had different rules for Europe, India or even the Middle East.

“Twitter blocking certain Pakistani official and verified accounts in India without due process and identifying any violation of the law is a blatant case of submission to Indian high-handedness,” Gen Bajwa maintained.

At the same time, he expressed his organisation’s limitations, as social media companies complied with the laws of the land they operated in.

Pakistan’s proposed social media rules, titled ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021’, notified by the PTA in October 2021 have been rendered non-functional due to litigation by several entities and individuals in the Islamabad High Court.

Experts have blamed government functionaries for failing to understand the seriousness of the issue.

“The incumbent Indian government is pushing its Hindutva agenda and containing all counter voices from reaching its citizens,” Shahzad Ahmed, the country director of digital rights organisation Bytes for All, said.

“But I blame the government of Pakistan and various departments for failing to act in this regard. As a matter of fact, all the government functionaries are working in silos and not sharing their part of the information with each other.”

The Foreign Office was also banking on international pressure and the court case filed by Twitter against the Indian government’s orders to take down some content on the platform.

An FO spokesman in a recent briefing had said, “We would also like to appeal to our media, and through our media international organisations that are guardians of free speech and expression to hold the Indian digital dictatorship to account and prevail upon the government of India to reverse its actions.”

On the other hand, a global collective of various social media and IT companies — the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — also vigorously opposed Pakistan’s proposed social media rules. However, its reaction to similar laws in India was a mere formality — the double standards as pointed out by the PTA chief.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2022

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