A near-miss misadventure

February 23, 2020

In the wake of the government’s recent decision to crackdown upon the social media, one can determinedly ask: who led us on this collision course with international businesses that could have caused our digital economy millions in losses?

In May 2017, Imran Khan, who was then the leader of an opposition political party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), posted a tweet that read, “Govt abusing cyber crimes law to politically victimise PTI social media activists by threatening (and/or) arresting them. Unacceptable in a democracy”.

The tweet was a reference to the alleged arrests of the PTI’s social media activists, and content removal through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, a.k.a. the cyber crimes bill, under its various sections including Section 37, which empowers the executive branch of the government to remove online content and block websites with zero parliamentary oversight or transparency of any kind — a section that was later termed ‘draconian’ by the chief justice of Islamabad High Court.

Fast forward to January 2020, and the plot has reversed.

Last month, a renowned Pakistani journalist reported on the proceedings of a recent federal cabinet meeting wherein two policies were presented for the review of the cabinet members, one of which was a plan to “crackdown upon the social media”. The conclusion from the highlights of the discussion was that Prime Minister Imran Khan himself seemed to be the custodian of the idea, and remained adamant on the need to “limit the social mediums” even when some of his cabinet members presented a different view.

In February, nearly two weeks after this report, a document detailing the Citizens Protection (from Online Harm) Rules 2020 surfaced, and it so transpired that these ‘rules’ were already approved by the federal cabinet. Dated January 21, 2020, the document outlined the ‘rules and procedures’ made under various sections of the Pakistan Telecommunication Reorganisation Act (PTRA) and Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

In the name of ‘protecting citizens from online harm’, the rules went well beyond the provisions in the legislations, and created an extremely regressive regulatory mechanism of their own.

For starters, the rules obligated all social media companies to register in Pakistan within three months, and move their data-servers within the geographical boundaries of the country in a year; failure in this regard could cause the ‘closure’ of their services in Pakistan. 

Similarly, the social media companies were also required to handover data — including the decrypted data from platforms such as WhatsApp — as and when required, and remove content as and when directed, no questions asked. In case of non-compliance, according to the rules, the companies could be fined up to Rs500 million.

PM Imran Khan remained adamant on the need to “limit the social mediums” even when some cabinet members presented a different view.

The rules attracted a lot of criticism from groups and individuals inside and outside the country. About a dozen statements were issued condemning the Rules and the close-doors legislative process. More importantly, the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry-representative of the global Internet companies, issued a statement expressing their concern and reminding the Pakistani government of the potential damage the rules could do to country’s digital economy.

Later, the AIC also wrote a letter to the prime minister clearly stating that global platforms will not be able to continue the provision of their services in Pakistan if it is conditioned with the compliance of the rules.

Considering massive criticism from all quarters, and the potential damage to the country’s digital economy, the prime minister recently chaired a high-level meeting to review and re-assess the rules through stakeholder consultations, and reportedly halted the implementation until such time when the stakeholders are on-board.

Thankfully, better sense prevailed, and the impending standoff between the Pakistani government and trillion-dollar global internet companies was avoided. This near-miss has, however, left us with a plethora of questions: who led us on this collision course with international businesses that could have caused our digital economy millions in losses? Was it incompetence, or a political move? If so, are we willing to gamble on our ambitions of a ‘digital Pakistan’ in a bid to control political narratives in online spaces?

These questions will perhaps be answered in time but at the moment we have bigger concerns at hand.

Firstly, this whole exercise, and the international embarrassment it caused, has made it abundantly clear that our policymakers are neither equipped with the nuances essential for digital policymaking nor are they tuned in the global trends and conversations around the concept. More importantly, the spirit of ‘multi-stakeholder-ism’ that forms the foundation of internet governance policies around the globe seems to be completely missing from our policy circles.

This brings us to a rather fundamental question: can we then entrust them with policymaking for the digital Pakistan?

Secondly, the relentless, factually incorrect, and misleading defence put up by some government spokespersons to justify the rules has, once again, proven that nothing is off the menu when it comes to political manoeuvring for increased control of online spaces, including peddling false narratives.

A similar but much more intense case of peddling false narratives to push for a problematic legislation involved the former IT minister Anusha Rehman, a member of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, when she ‘sold’ the draconian PECA as a ‘tool to save women from online harassment’ to the Pakistani nation in 2016.

Only about a year after Rehman declared the civil society representatives critical of over-broad powers delegated under PECA were ‘foreign agents’, her party leader Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif issued a statement that expressed grave “concern over the harassment of the social media activists supporting PML-N” through the use of PECA.

Talk about irony.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist and the founder of Media Matters for Democracy. He tweets at @asadbeyg

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