Recent news reports indicate that the federal cabinet has approved new rules to regulate social media. If true, this would be a sharp shift from the existing practices of cracking down on individual social media users and reporting content to social media companies. Instead, the new rules will equip the government with the tools to hold social media companies accountable, at source. A purported copy of these rules circulating online, entitled “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, confirms the reportage.
Given some of the anti-social tendencies of social media, there are legitimate grounds to regulate online content. After all, the spread of “disinformation” continues to rock the foundation of the oldest democracy in the world. Beyond spreading fake news, social media has also become a potent channel to direct abuse towards vulnerable segments, especially women, children and minorities. Social media giants have responsibility to steer their platforms clear of hateful content and falsehoods that undermine social order.
Besides, since data privacy is paramount, it is not entirely unaccommodating to ask social media giants to store data generated by Pakistanis at data centers that are based in Pakistan. Already, this drive towards “data localization” – also referred to as “data sovereignty” – is enforced by many countries, including democracies like Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Indonesia and South Korea. It is also not unreasonable to ask online companies to open registered offices where they generate business from.
If indeed these noble intents were behind the rules in question, there could be better ways to go about it than to have the cabinet approve the framework in haste. Like it or not, social media has become a kind of public good, and any regulatory disruption in the way this medium works may cause outsized alarm. Granted, social media is a relatively new area, and unlike broadcast media, it has no generally-agreed regulatory framework. Still, a parliamentary debate could have provided a semblance of public discussion.
Folks are wondering “what now,” for these rules have been in force for about a month, at least on paper. From what it looks, the government is holding on to a wait-and-see approach before the wheels of implementation stat rolling. Hypothetically, there can be a legal challenge that disputes the government’s claim that it has the right to enforce such rules based on provisions under the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.
Barring a litigious recourse, the future implementation of these rules may make things complicated at several levels, bordering on self-sabotage.
From a purely business perspective, it makes little sense to force social media platforms, which are the drivers and influencers of the digital economy, against the wall. If a social media company failed to comply with any of the rules, it will be slapped a penalty of up to Rs500 million, or else shut its business. These companies may prefer closing shop than setting dangerous precedents where they share confidential user data with governments. It is better to find some cooperative means of engagement, something that the tech giants have also suggested to the government through its Asia Internet Coalition.
This is, by no means, an attempt at fear-mongering, but consider, if social media giants stopped offering their services in Pakistan, what kind of a message will it send to the world at a time when Pakistan really needs to be open for business? It may sound mundane, but foreign business executive who are used to OTT messaging/calling apps like WhatsApp may feel like they are in Pyongyang instead of Islamabad. Needless to add, foreign tourists won’t be thrilled at being unable to share their snaps and stories online.
These rules do not seem to be in favor of ordinary citizens either. The target market appears to be all citizens, as the regulations do not limit the scope of bad behavior and do not strictly define terms such as online extremism. It’s like using a hammer when a scalpel can do the job. In addition, to enforce these rules, a “National Coordinator” will be appointed, who will be assisted by a committee of “stakeholders”. The discretionary powers of these officials seem limitless, opening up the possibilities for abuse of power.
It would be better to appoint an independent board that can reasonably outline the scope and meaning of online “transgressions”. Besides, if Pakistan is to become a country that follows its laws, the government authorities should demonstrate a legal basis for taking action against social media users and such users ought to have remedial measures available. The top judiciary has a role to play. Let better sense prevail!