The fixation with controlling social media content isn’t going away. Earlier this year, “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” had caused much uproar among civil society and social media companies (SMCs). Government retreated for a while, offering what turned out as a listless consultation process. The “consultations” didn't go anywhere, and now the original document is back under “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020”.
Several issues still remain unresolved when dealing with online content. First, there is no qualified criteria for what constitutes “unlawful” content, or what passes for “fake or false information,” or what falls or doesn't fall under “decency and morality”. There can be no disagreement on curbing content that centers on spreading disinformation, engaging in slander, sharing fake news on purpose, impersonating another individual, harassing people online, and other such activities that cause personal or reputational harm.
Short of such anti-social behavior, however, the extent of harm caused online becomes a murky affair, requiring objective assessment. In the absence of having objective criteria and transparent, widely-accepted mechanisms to evaluate online content as harmful/unlawful or otherwise, the said rules are prone to being used and abused as per the whims of powerful interests. Such arbitrary regimes have a chilling effect on personal freedoms as enshrined in the Constitution.
Second, the amount of discretion that the “Authority” (reportedly the PTA) will have in adjudicating complaints regarding harmful online content is rather vast. The rules grant the Authority the powers to shut down an entire online platform even if one complaint wasn’t addressed to remove or block harmful content. A Rs500 million penalty can also be applied on an online platform.
And third, the new rules strike at the heart of the free speech when it seeks to preempt criticism on “any person holding public office”. Now the federal and provincial governments are also added to the list of overly-sensitive public servants. It isn't clear if these rules can stand the test of judicial review, but an attempt has been made by the government to establish a bridge between “unlawful” online content and the offenses under Pakistan Penal Code (1860) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (1898).
It is quite astonishing how the opposition parties aren’t up in arms over this creeping censorship on social media. And curiously, the average social media user doesn't seem to be sufficiently alarmed. There is predictable pushback from the tech giants, who will now have to register and set up permanent offices in Islamabad and establish servers to store data/online content in Pakistan within nine months and eighteen months, respectively, of the passage of these rules.
The Asia Internet Coalition – which is an association made up of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter and a bunch of other tech firms to resolve Internet-related policy issues – has condemned the “data localization requirements” as “draconian”. But it is confusing as to what they are really protesting against: prospect of starting Pakistan operations or potential violations of their users’ privacy. It is also not clear what else, beyond issuing statements, was done by the tech lobby to influence policy in this regard.
It doesn't suit global SMCs to follow a “draconian” precedent in Pakistan, lest other countries also start having ideas. But they won’t likely be leaving the country either – they have said they will find it “extremely difficult” to continue providing their services. Clearly, the state is not relenting. It shall have its way, for there is no meaningful resistance, be it political, social or judicial. Therefore, the companies will have to find ways to cooperate. In the end, the loss is of the end-user alone.