Wrong direction for a shiny digital future
Pakistan is one of the world’s largest digital societies and aspires to greater global influence online. Indeed among the key highlights of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s participation in the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020 were his meetings with the chiefs of social media and digital giants Facebook, YouTube and Telenor from whom he sought greater investments.
And yet within weeks, the future of Pakistan’s burgeoning digital economy has come under a cloud after two major initiatives by the government in quick succession that it claimed will curb cybercrime and make internet safer. Disagreeing, stakeholders are up in arms in a spirited opposition to these attempts, alleging that these measures aim to curb online dissent and will end up stifling the digital economy just when it needs a fillip. What does the future portend for Pakistan’s internet?
First, in late January, private broadcast sector regulator PEMRA unexpectedly announced its intent to mandate Pakistanis producing visual online content, including TV channels streaming their broadcast online, to obtain licenses at steep costs and international non-linear content distributors like Netflix to do likewise. Alarmed, journalists, media, civil society, human rights activists and political parties reacted strongly and rejected the proposals.
These stakeholders pointed out that Pemra did not have legal jurisdiction to regulate the internet and that its real intent was to prevent a large number of critical journalists forced out of their mainstream media jobs from running their popular social media channels, especially on YouTube. The reaction, supported by the parliament, forced Pemra to back off.
Second, in early February, the federal cabinet unexpectedly announced the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, a list of stringent new regulations requiring, among other things, regulation of all social media activities online and all international social media companies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to set up offices in Pakistan, maintain local servers for all local social media activity and obliging them to disclose any information or data to investigation agencies when requested by the authorities. They would also be required to remove content deemed unlawful by the authorities. If platforms fail to comply with the rules, they risk being blocked and fined.
In its disguised aim to restrict freedom of expression, the government is not only hurting the privacy and digital rights of Pakistani netizens, it is also ending up hurting the digital economy.
The reaction from public as well as from social media companies was swift and one of outrage, saying the proposed regulations were coercive, in contravention of international practice and national constitutional guarantees and would dramatically restrict online civil liberties, digital rights and unravel the digital economy. In a climbdown, the prime minister announced a halt to enforcement of the cabinet decision and agreed to have broader consultations with the stakeholders about the fate of these regulations.
Both these attempts are a continuation of the Imran Khan government’s low threshold of criticism toward its generally poor performance and growing disenchantment and its harsh attitude toward dissent in general. It has already attempted, and failed, in merging print, electronic and internet regulators. It has also cracked down on dissent, using a 2016 cybercrime law to register cases against journalists and forcing Pemra to issue a barrage of notices to TV channels over content critical of government authorities.
In its disguised aim to restrict freedom of expression, the government is not only hurting the privacy and digital rights of Pakistani netizens, it is also ending up hurting the digital economy. The country’s demographics and technology have resulted in a digital realm that is bigger in numbers than the individual national size of over two-thirds of the countries on the planet and makes Pakistan one of the largest digital societies of the world. The country is poised this year to cross the landmark billion-dollar threshold on native annual online merchant transactions. This excludes the burgeoning digital economy being boosted by the likes of Google, Facebook and YouTube for local businesses and entrepreneurs.
An unusual letter to the prime minister by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), grouping together Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Airbnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, LinkedIn and Yahoo, among others, warned that the new rules will make it “extremely difficult” for digital companies to operate in Pakistan and, unless revoked, will “severely cripple the growth of Pakistan's digital economy.” It added that the rules belie Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and will “make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.” Even a finger-waving US government said the rules were a “setback to Pakistan’s digital economy.”
Not just for the digital economy, the government needs to back-off in the interests of its citizens’ digital rights. In the guise of protecting “religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities,” which are excuses to crack down on civil liberties, the rules will only take Pakistan back to the Twentieth Century. That way does not lie the digital future!
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.