At the beginning of the year, the Federal government revealed and enacted the Citizen Protection Rules (Against Online Harm) 2020, which sent the nation into a frenzy. It addresses social media companies like Facebook and Twitter etc. directly and require them to establish offices and database servers inside Pakistan within 12 months of the rules being published. It indicates a definite move towards data localization in Pakistan. Data localization requires that data of a country’s citizens be collected, processed and stored locally before being transferred internationally.
Additionally, these rules require that social media companies appoint a contact person to report to a “National Coordinator” at the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications. They also oblige social media companies to remove or censor content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading fake news or defamation”. Under the rules, the Government also has authority to acquire data and information from these companies.
The rules, which were passed by the Cabinet, were heavily criticised by organizations like the Digital Rights Foundation of Pakistan and the Asian Internet Coalition. The Digital Rights Foundation raised strong objections to the rules, stating that they are against Article 19 (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and are unreasonable. They give the “National Coordinator” unchecked authority to censor content based on their own interpretations of it. There is also no information about the procedure of hiring the coordinator.
The Government maintains that the act is to protect citizens and will help them monitor and prevent content that is connected to “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.” While according to this rationale, the Government might be able to eliminate threats to national security, the negative implications of these rules are said to outweigh the positive ones. Many have said that it is a huge step back for the country.
The Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), stated that the rules would trigger a huge loss to the budding digital economy in Pakistan. The AIC is an association that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple among other industry giants. It was formed to promote the understanding and resolution of internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region. They also said in a statement that since no other country has introduced such regulations, this would make Pakistan a global outlier. The rules also hint at mass censorship and could hinder freedom of expression of citizens. The act has also been criticised as a possible infringement on the privacy of citizens as it gives the government authority to acquire their information from social media companies. This could eventually turn into mass surveillance.
The biggest criticism for the rules is that they were formulated and approved by the Federal Government without public consultation and enacted in January 2020 behind closed doors. A petition was filed with the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to question the legitimacy of these rules. The petition also requested that the rules be suspended effective immediately until reasonable justifications were provided. The IHC issued notices to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication and other respondents to submit their responses to the petition. However, it rejected the request to suspend the applicability of the rules.
Critics including the AIC have suggested that the rules be reevaluated with public consideration. The long term implications of the rules, on the economy and the people should also be taken into consideration. These rules would also have an extremely negative impact on the global perception of Pakistan which is already portrayed as an ultra-conservative, Islamic state under an authoritarian government. Rather than the government formulating such regulation behind closed doors, they should collaborate with organizations such as the AIC and the Digital Rights Foundation, along with social media companies.
Social media is one of the largest media of communication and information exchange. It is the source of news for many around the world. It gives anyone the right to create and disseminate any kind of news or opinion to a massive audience. Its immense power makes it a viable threat to national security. However, in trying to neutralize this threat it is necessary to have a balanced approach and to take all stakeholders in confidence when creating policies and regulations.