IT ministry’s draconian rules
The Information Technology Ministry has notified rules to remove and block unlawful online content. This was done without consultation with all relevant stakeholders as promised by Prime Minister Imran Khan in February. Under the new rules, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been empowered to block entire online systems and networks that do not comply with its requests for removal of “offensive” content— which can include criticism of the government or public office holders— and also mandates all social media companies to provide decrypted data of its entire user base. The ISPs and the SMCs could be fined up to Rs500 million for failing to abide with the directives of the Ministry.
It is maintained by the PTA that it will not restrict or disrupt the flow or dissemination of any online content except in the case of removing and blocking access to online content which goes against the interest of Islam, integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, public health, public safety, decency and morality. There is a lot of ambiguity and difference of opinion about these terms which could easily be stretched to block genuine criticism of the government’s policies. The new rules could in fact stifle dissent and free speech and open the door to mass censorship for political gains. There is a perception that rules are being made, bypassing Parliament, to make social media platforms fall in line.
We are told that the vital digital economy of the country is beginning to take off. In a situation like this, restrictions on social media companies should not be on the government’s agenda. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) which comprises mega tech companies has meanwhile reiterated that if such rules are implemented, it would become extremely difficult for them to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. This would be highly detrimental for the growth of the digital economy in the country. Pakistan in fact needs to be an attractive destination for technology investment to realize its goal of digital transformation.
The government should step back and hold consultations with all stakeholders, including mega tech companies, internet service providers and local digital rights activists, to formulate a digital policy in sync with the times.