New social media rules stifles free speech
Shahab Jafry
For once I really hope that Prime Minister Imran Khan pulls his characteristic U-turn on one of his more novel ideas sooner than later. Just a few days ago the cabinet became the first of its kind in the world – first among working democracies anyway – to order a complete reorganisation of the social media landscape. According to the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harassment) Rules 2020, which the cabinet passed in absolute secrecy without any sort of consultation with any stakeholder whatsoever, international social media companies must set up offices in Pakistan in three months, establish data servers within one year, and also disable accounts, provide user data, etc. whenever the government wants not just for everybody inside the country but also Pakistanis living abroad. And, of course, they were able to say with a straight face that such measures are simply unavoidable to protect everybody, people and country, from ‘online harassment’.
Surely cabinet factored in local resistance when it green lighted this step, and decided not to care too much about it, but all the international outcry seems to have put the ruling party somewhat on the back foot. So now, after and receiving a fair bit of flak from governments, rights organisations and activists, not to mention a flat no from Big Tech, the prime minister is now at least offering to ‘accommodate all stakeholders’; whatever that means, especially since he was in no mood to even discuss it just last week.
Indeed, even the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology, which is supposed to debate such steps before they are forwarded to cabinet, has expressed shock at being left in the dark. It has also asked the ministry of information technology to explain just why the panel was bypassed. Why, after all, can constitutionally mandated bodies within the Upper House of Parliament not have a say in protecting the people and the country from ‘online harassment’?
It seems this desire to clamp down on social media, which is what it is being called all around, came from one of those rather frequent cabinet meetings where the prime minister, frustrated with opposition pressure, bad economy or public protests, orders sweeping changes in laws and the band of yes-men surrounding simply nods and plays along. A number of times, though, that has only amounted to pushing the government into a hole that it must later claw its way out of. And, with the delayed offer of accommodating stakeholders and all that, that is precisely what the prime minister is doing. But only after taking a battering from the same social media that his government is trying so hard to rein in.
Interestingly, of the many international organisations that have urged the government to roll back these regulatory measures, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) – an association of the biggest technology companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google, etc. – seems to have delivered something of a healthy dose of reality check. In a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, it not only reminded him that Pakistan was the only country to have made such demands, but also warned that going down this road would certainly throw the country’s small digital economy off the rails. And, far more importantly, divulging user data compromises their confidentiality protocols and can easily fall within the ambit of human rights violations. Now, since nobody wants that tag, and all the sanctions it can invite, it seems the realisation began sinking in that it was time to claw out of this particular hole. Hence the sudden softening of the tone and talk of accommodation, etc.
No doubt the government wants to protect everybody from online harassment, as it should, but the simple fact is that everybody knows what these rules and procedures are really about. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been trying to muzzle the press since its earliest days in power. First it banned all government advertisements in an unfair, arbitrary and, some say, illegal manner. Then, just last quarter, it tried to set up media tribunals; another one of those positions that it was forced to back down from. And now, unhappy with criticism over its governance, trouble with allies and, especially, mishandling of the economy, it is desperately trying to control social media.
With much of the opposition incarcerated and the press already pretty much forced to self-sensor, it is clear that the only voice the ruling party wants heard is its own. But by trying to completely control the narrative and blot out all dissent, it is betraying a dictatorial mindset that sharply contradicts its own earlier positions. And it is learning, quite the hard way that putting road blocks on the information superhighway will only expose it to yet more condemnation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all this is perfectly understandable in the Pakistani political context. No leader has ever been too happy about waking up to editorials, news shows, and social media posts full of criticism, and everybody has usually done what they could to minimise bad press.
But Imran was supposed to be different, wasn’t he, not the least because it was the press and social media that really catapulted him to the top. Those with slightly long memories will remember how he threatened to come out on the streets with his legions when the previous government fiddled with social media laws. And the least he should be mindful of is, considering the pressures building on the government, that he might be in need of a free press once again in not too distant the future.