People & Society

Fair rule or foul? Analyzing the government's social media rules

A democratic republic lays the foundation of free speech and welcomes dissent. Especially when dealing with a 21st Century technology like social media and its governance, the state should understand the mere principles on which social media and freedom of expression thrive.

The cabinet of the Prime Minister of Pakistan may feel that traditional approaches of censorship are the best and a controlled narrative is essential, but ideas of strict enforcement of government diktat over people’s expression on social media can only anticipate chaos. This brings us to the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. The cabinet approved a set of rules that were deemed draconian by many, to enforce over what their citizens say, think and post on such an internationally fungible space, as social media. These rules, posted last week, make demands for social media companies to establish offices in Pakistan in three months, eventually have their servers here within a year, call for the appointment of a social media coordinator and will demand removal of any social media post at the disposal of the government. This violates not just the terms of service of multiple social media companies, but Pakistanis’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and publication also.

These rules are seemingly derived from 2016’s controversial “Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act” (PECA) and 1996’s “Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation Act,” but overstep the boundary of these laws by an unconstitutional degree. Asking for unfettered access to data without a court order at the whims of a bureaucrat violates a constitutional (and universal) right to privacy.

It looks more and more difficult to understand how a globe spanning social media company could or would comply with such arbitrary access to its data. The relevant social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter have not even deigned to directly answer the questions opened by the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. Instead, they referred all queries to the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) which represents Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Grab, LINE, Rakuten, and Yahoo (Oath). Their representative Jeff Paine said that they are “deeply concerned to see the Pakistan Government release a set of broad reaching online rules without any consultation with stakeholders, including industry.”

“These rules jeopardize personal safety and privacy of citizens, and undermine free expression. We urge the government to reconsider these rules, which are likely to be detrimental to Pakistan’s ambitions for a digital economy,” he added.

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Whereas these are expressions of normal sentiments in Pakistan, a state commitment to the privacy, safety and capacity for free expression for all its citizens, cannot be taken for granted.

These intrusive and oppressive rules for governing social media space may be the step, which a lot of Pakistanis feel goes too far. Not only have newspapers, lawyers, and international trade associations called them out, the threat of legal and political action looms large over such rules, and if need be, should likely be pursued.

It is unlikely that social media companies will establish offices in Pakistan or localize servers in a country that has expressed resistant attitude to the data these companies make money off. The rules call for blocking any social media at the hands of the social media coordinator if the company does not comply.

This censorship and control narrative is not a first time occurrence. Pakistan has had a history of censorship and social media blockade, even during the tenures of past governments. The republic blocked Facebook for a week in 2010, under the government of President Zardari. Then the government under pressure from religious extremists blocked YouTube in 2012. The ban was revoked in 2016, under the Sharif government. 

These rules also bring to mind the blackout of Benazir Bhutto and the PPP’s opposition during the Zia-ul-Haq regime. Even during the regime of General Musharraf, opposition interviews were not prevented from airing on the domestic private media.

What is noteworthy is the very idea that the ascension to power of the ruling party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), was brought about by the campaigning and advocacy initiatives on social media. During the Sharif government, the opposition sought to bring about a sweeping accountability revolution with the help of social media. Even now, it is deeply reliant on the medium for getting its message out. If it strictly enforced these rules, when the social media companies refuse to set-up office in Pakistan, the PTI’s own social media teams would be hamstrung. It would then be forced to face the same problems that other parties face as they struggle to find space in a media that is regularly monitored to remove leading opposition voices or interviews from airing. Opposition social media accounts, as well as those from state institutions and the ruling party, the PTI, use social media to amplify their voice and get their messages across, and would all go silent.

After initially releasing a straight-forward media statement, the Asia Internet Coalition has also released a formal statement addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan that responds to the rules set forth by the government. Taking the government’s rules seriously, the trade organization noted throughout the statement how opaque and non-public the creation of the rules was, how difficult this will make it for social media companies to provide Pakistan services and how this will harm Pakistan’s digital economic prospects.

While trying to understand the thought process behind these laws, Farieha Aziz, co-founder of digital rights organization Bolo Bhi said that these have been their aspirations over the years. These rules are a reflection of what the state wishes to achieve, no matter how impossible it is to do so. “Responsibility for this particular version has been taken by Secretary IT (Information Technology),” she said when asked about who might have drafted these rules.

erc-yfpwoaezd7m.jpegSecretary IT Ministry
Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui

All governments, past and present, have expressed the desire for social media companies to localize in Pakistan, whether it is the PPP, PML-N or the PTI. Having their servers here would of course allow them to have access to their data. 

Fahd Husain, while discussing the environment that gave rise to these rules, reported the “argument in ruling circles trending nowadays goes something like this: China and Singapore did not need a free media to progress. Why should we?” But Pakistan was not established to be a one party state, nor is its rise graced with such personalities as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kuan Yew.

Zarrar Khuhro of Zara Hat Kay had serious reservations over the provenance of these rules. He stated that, “They deliberately did not bring this in front of the parliament because they knew there would be an outcry. They notified these rules quietly, back in January and we only found out about them now, because they wanted to avoid consultation. That is not in any sane world, the definition of consulting stakeholders. No one was consulted. The government is essentially telling us an untruth to our face.”

“It sets up a national coordinator, who is going to be the deciding authority, essentially judge, jury and executioner, deciding whether your or mine, social media posts are in fact, violating the religious, cultural, ethnic and national interests of Pakistan. Who defines that?” he exclaimed on the possibility of abuse of these rules. 

Zarrar also spoke in an indirect way about how this law can be a danger to the very people who brought it into being: “This is one more noose to hang people with, frankly speaking. We have seen this happen countless times. Every time any government pushes through a draconian bill or rule, it is almost inevitably used against whom they deem to be their political opponents or the opponent of whichever institution is pushing that particular rule, law or act. We have also ironically seen that that very legislation is used by those who conceived it in the first place. It is an irony, or a law of nature that the noose you prepare for others is fastened around your neck.”

Zarrar made it clear what these rules represent when he said that, “My primary concern is what I see as quite clearly another attempt to curtail the liberties of Pakistanis.”

De-notification is the only viable option with regulations like these. In a recent tweet, Ramsha Jahangir updates that the Prime Minster has directed consultation on the social media regulation, until which the implementation of the rules is deferred.

These rules might be where Pakistanis should register protest with their own state, to keep their fundamental constitutional rights intact, where failure to do so represents an abyss for what’s left online of free expression in Pakistan.

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