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The fate of the government’s social media regulations hangs in the balance. The second version of the rules – titled Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 – were released in November 2020 and almost immediately ran into opposition from civil society and social media companies, the latter under the banner of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC).

The civil society argued that the rules infringed on freedom of expression and the tech firms’ contention was they weren’t properly consulted when those rules were being framed. The AIC members (Facebook, Twitter, Google, among others) took their grievances directly to the PM by writing ominous letters. And the local civil society, which comprised, among others, a leading journalist body and a political party, challenged the rules in the Islamabad High Court.

The controversy over social media rules has brought bad press for Pakistan internationally, starting early 2020, at a time when the government was signaling an opening up of the country for foreign investors and tourists alike. The civil society argued that the regulations trampled on citizens’ freedom of speech, whereas the AIC contended that the scope of the rules was too broad and the demands for setting up permanent offices and database servers in Pakistan were unnecessary.

Now it is good to see that the PM has constituted a high-powered committee (on March 30) to resolve the impasse. The five-member committee, which will have its secretariat at the IT & Telecom Division, will be chaired by the Federal Minister for Human Rights, with Chairman PTA as its Secretary. The committee has been notified to submit a report to the PM within a month following consultations with all stakeholders.

It remains to be seen how far the committee can go in resolving differences. It will be difficult to arrive at objective criteria to qualify what online content is “harmful” and what can pass off as benign. Social media has unfortunately become breeding ground for disinformation, fake news and harassment – the challenge is to ensure that innocent users are not targeted while curbing such malicious behavior. Then the process of reporting of content, investigation and adjudication also needs to be transparent.

While civil society is concerned that arbitrary rules may become a victimization tool and violate citizen rights, the social media companies wouldn't like to set precedents that can be emulated by other countries. Expect tech giants to demand liability protection from content posted by their users. The government is expected to not budge from demand for local incorporation, to ensure swift compliance. Here is hoping that a win-win framework emerges after the committee’s deliberations.

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