Subduing social media platform

Using rules to suppress free speech

On December 9, Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication Syed Amin-ul Haque announced that Google, the world’s largest search engine and video-sharing platform, was set to open a liaison office in Pakistan. Google had already registered itself as a company in Pakistan.

Registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) is the first step towards the establishment of the office, a requirement under the Removal and Blocking Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules 2021. The rules made on 13 October 2021 by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority require that the social media platforms should have their servers in Pakistan to ensure that the data were secure. Currently, the data of all the platforms are stored outside the country.

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Haque also disclosed that TikTok had agreed to establish a liaison office in Pakistan. However, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube were still reluctant to follow suit. The effort is that, after getting registered and opening offices, the social media platforms should abide by the laws and the norms of Pakistan.

The objective of the Rules was to have an authority as a handle on these social media companies, which would have a representative and an office in Islamabad. If the government required, the companies would be bound to remove or block access to any post or online content from 12 hours (in emergency) to 48 hours (in routine) from the time of the receiving of directions. In case of non-compliance, the company would be fined up to Rs500 million.

Within the domain of freedom of speech and expression, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution, the Rules concerned intend to protect five things: glory of Islam, security of Pakistan, public order, decency or morality, and integrity or defence of Pakistan.

In the West, the acts of the army and the judiciary are not out of bounds of social reaction. Political reaction may or may not follow social reaction. These institutions which have erected an iron curtain around them should come to terms with the realities of the modern age and modern Pakistan. Change yourself, instead of changing the whole world.

The government was saying that social media companies had to open functional offices in Islamabad and follow local laws. Apparently, there should no problem with these five aspects. However, there are apprehensions that these rules are meant for misuse by the government. There are two main sources of suspicion.

First, the previous government, which was the government of the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI), took certain steps which made people suspicious of the intention of the government. On 21 January 2020, the previous government notified new social media rules and, on January 28, the federal cabinet approved the “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”. In its Article 2(1) (d), “extremism” was defined as the “violent, vocal or active opposition to fundamental values of the State of Pakistan including the security, integrity or defence of Pakistan, public order, decency or morality, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

The question is this: How can extremism be defined in this way? With this definition as the mainstay of the rules, it became obvious that the government wanted to use the smokescreen of the word “extremism” to its benefit, to suppress the freedom of expression and speech. The rules were a crackdown against dissent and not against extremism. Presently, the major challenge comes from fake news, defamation campaigns, hate speech, and incitement to violence. However, even such genuine challenges and concerns have become questionable.

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Second, in Pakistan, the law of terrorism is misused. Any political opponent or dissenter is subjected to an FIR on the allegation of terrorism. By the time the receiver gets exonerated of the charges, a lot of time is wasted.

The major problem is with the exploitation of rules to one’s benefit. After 2008, the rise of social media saw the rise of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, though these remained unchecked. On several occasions, limits were crossed, both intentionally and unintentionally. From 2014 to 2018, the Pakistanis, especially the educated urban class, got engaged in participating in politics and social issues through social media, which emerged as a platform alternative to the mainstream controlled media. This was why social media appeared as a platform giving vent to the suppressed and even unorthodox thoughts of society.

Another point is that who would judge if any post or online content is removed judicially or not. Both kinds of rules (2020 and 2021) are silent on this aspect. It means that the government of Pakistan would enjoy discretionary powers to decide on the matter.

Given the existing rules, it is feared that social media may degenerate from being an instrument of free speech and expression to a medium of controlled discourse. Intelligence agencies want to have full access to the data and activities of both social media companies and their clients. For the youth, who are deprived of student unions to vent their feelings, may feel the squeeze. Unfortunately, intelligence agencies, which are not free of political influence, have their own measure of judging dissent.

It is apparent that there is present mistrust between citizens and the state. The social media companies are also aware of the wedge of suspicion. They are interested in having clients to earn money and run their system and not interested in pleasing the Pakistan government. Further, the social media companies based in the West are aware of the level of freedom of expression and speech in developing countries such as Pakistan.

They may not be interested in becoming a tool in the hands of Pakistan’s government to suppress socio-political discord. Terms like glory of religion and integrity of a country lose relevance outside Pakistan. Decency and morality are relevant terms changing their definitions from society to society. The East cannot ban the West. With the inflow of technology from the West, western ideas and norms are bound to invade the East.

Nevertheless, every Pakistani knows where the rub lies. In the West, the acts of the army and the judiciary are not out of bounds of social reaction. Political reaction may or may not follow social reaction. These institutions which have erected an iron curtain around them should come to terms with the realities of the modern age and modern Pakistan. Change yourself, instead of changing the whole world.

Dr Qaisar Rashid
Dr Qaisar Rashid
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]


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