Govt’s New Regulations Are Aimed To Permanently Ban Social Media

Govt’s New Regulations Are Aimed To Permanently Ban Social Media
The real intention behind the government's new regulations restricting social media freedom is to curb criticism of the government, writes Awais Babar.

It is not easy anymore to silence voices in the modern era. In the print media era, it was easy, as all that was needed to be done was intimidation, hurling threats or blackmailing. Social media in this era has multiplied the voices and it is not practically possible to silence a multitude of voices especially when almost everyone is a part of it now. Hence, perhaps, the new rules have been devised to stop the bleeding somehow.

In the name of "Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020", government brought in new regulations which are designed in a way that International Social Media Companies will permanently end in Pakistan. Putting aside the nomenclature and certain legal/technical technologies, the Cabinet has revolutionised the whole social media sphere by bringing in the following rules.

  1. Social media companies will be required to establish offices in Islamabad within 3 months of coming into force of these rules. That is likely to mean that if any of these companies fails to establish such an office, it shall likely be shut down in Pakistan.

  2. Social media companies shall not only be required to remove the contents of Pakistani citizens residing in Pakistan but also all over the globe. This is the most tyrannical of all rules and shows the lack of forbearance at the governmental level.

  3. Previously it was up to social media platforms to deem a content as objectionable and they would remove it under the spectacle of their own rules and regulations, whereas now, an authority called 'National Coordinator', established under the new regulations will order the companies to remove a content that it deems inappropriate and the companies shall be bound to follow it. If they do not, they may be shut down and ultimately wrap up their business in the country.

  4. Technically, anyone, whether individual or an institution, can make a complaint to the competent authority or the authority of its own motion can also issue an order in this regard to a particular content. Meaning thereby, since millions are in use of social media platforms, we are likely to have at least a thousand complaints everyday. Tolerance is not our virtue as a nation.

  5. Once the competent authority has made its decision, only that itself has the power to review it. Meaning thereby, that the same authority that makes the decision shall also be empowered to reverse its own decision. Once the review has been made, the affected party may then appeal to the High Court.

  6. The social media companies shall be bound to act on the orders of the competent authority within 24 hours and they may at certain times also be required to act within 6 hours if certain circumstances are deemed as exigent by the competent authority.

  7. The social media companies shall be bound to provide the competent authority with any data that it seeks.

How are these changes likely to affect the people and the government?

The real intention behind these new regulations is to curb criticism of the government as the latter is weary of criticism even if its due. In the name of sanctity of the institution and individuals they have come up with a mechanism to somehow stem the tide. This tells us one thing very clearly that the state will not rectify its direction that a great proportion of people wants to be realigned. But rather that people must go along with the flow.

Before we go on any further, let us see what Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has to say about these regulations on the front page of its website, an industry association that promotes the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region.

"Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved the Citizens Protection (Rules Against Online Harm) 2020, without prior consultation with stakeholders, including industry.

The AIC has significant concerns with the rules, which harm citizens’ privacy, safety and right to expression. These rules are also likely to impact Pakistan’s digital economy ambitions and industry in general.  This is our official media statement on the rules."

Almost every social media platform has its own rules. Take Twitter for instance, its primary theme in regulating the content is universal. The preamble of its rules reads as follows:
"Twitter's purpose is to serve the public conversation. Violence, harassment and other similar types of behaviour discourage people from expressing themselves, and ultimately diminish the value of global public conversation. Our rules are to ensure all people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely."

Since violence, harassment and other such behaviours are detested universally and are objective in nature (affects every normal human) that is the only way any social media platform can continue to function. Now let us compare that with the epicentre of the new regulations which has other considerations inherent in it most of which are subjective in nature. New rules have placed a ‘new burden’ on these companies the likes of which they may have never seen before. This is evident in the rules which place many obligations on these companies, one of them reads as; "A Social Media Company shall take due cognizance of the religious, cultural,  ethnic and national security sensitivities of Pakistan".

These are only garbs, in fact only to validate these horrendous regulations which are ultimately aimed at ending all sorts of criticisms. It would not be wrong to suggest that such regulations testify that we are jogging towards a communist sort of state like China or North Korea where questioning certain people and/or institutions is deemed as treacherous.

As mentioned earlier, social media platforms already have rules which prevent propaganda entailing extremism, hate, terrorism and other such phenomena. Haroon Baloch, Program Manager at Bytes for All, a group that campaigns for digital rights in Pakistan rightly said, “In the guise of ‘Citizen Protection Against Online Harm,’ these rules will provide protection to the state to use against citizens in many ways, such as seeking access to data of social media users,”.

Nighat Dad, who runs the NGO 'Digital Rights Foundation' in Pakistan, told Reuters,
"The worrying part for me is that the definition around extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have these unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state,". Without giving any thought to the adversity that could result between different groups when they realise that there is a way to block the other.

Let us see some classic examples of how wayward the implications of these changes will be. It may not hurt the national interest and the cultural values of Pakistan if Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari are publicly ridiculed or condemned on the social media as thieves etc., though it may hurt the national interest if a PM chosen by establishment such as Irman Khan is criticized. Likewise, an OP-ED analysing the recent call by the PM to initiate Article 6 proceedings against Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman may be deemed all right if it supports the state's narrative and not if it does not. In contrast, even mentioning that proceedings against General Pervez Musharraf were initiated under Article 6 and such was the decision reached by the Special Court may be deemed as hurting the national interest and removed. The government continues to disagree with such like implications.

Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqi, the top official at the ministry of information technology that authored the regulations, told Reuters that the new rules would help ‘identify and weed out unwanted and slanderous online content’.

“We needed to do it to uphold the integrity, decency and respect of 'individuals' and sanctity of 'institutions'," he said. These individuals are not likely to be me and you, and these institutions are not likely to be the ones in which I and you work. These individuals and institutions are the ones that the state deems respectable not the people.

In my humble opinion, it is highly unlikely for these companies to adhere to these regulations and continue to operate in Pakistan; perhaps PTI knows that already. These companies will eventually discontinue their services in Pakistan. They would never impeach the very principle on which the social media exists; free speech and that too for a country which is not the safest. Another primary reason why it is unrealistic to hope that these companies will stay in Pakistan is that it will setup a precedent and they be likewise be asked by other states to follow the same formula. This will jeopardize their whole business as it is the people of any country that generate its revenue not the governments.

This is what PTI fails to realise that criticism is not the only use of social media. The livelihood of millions is dependent on social media; businesses, schools, colleges, universities, restaurants, entrepreneurs, bloggers, vloggers, artists, even Maulana Tariq Jameel, all rely on social media to make the mare go. Every century has tools of its own and the tool of this century is social media.

In the event that these companies are no more in Pakistan, the government is likely to initiate alternative local programs which will most likely be incomprehensible, given our technological backwardness. These changes will also deprive the government and establishment of countering the narrative that it deems dangerous to national interest through its sponsored journalists

By attempting to uproot the very tool of this century, PTI is likely to face unintended consequences of its most recent gaffe.

The author is a barrister practicing law in Peshawar and Islamabad. He graduated from Cardiff University. The author can be reached at