After being snubbed, Pakistan approaches tech-companies to regulate digital media

The tech-joints have threatened the authorities to leave the country if strict laws were made to control political dissent. Now the government has approached these companies for making new law. Will this meet-up be helpful to ensure freedom of speech in Pakistan?

Media

In an interesting move, after backlash by social media giants who had threatened to shut down services in Pakistan over the new social media rules, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has offered an olive branch to Google, Facebook and Twitter to reach a middle ground over regulatory measures.

According to reports, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) chief Amir Azeem Bajwa wrote a letter to the managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) and invited it to take part in the process concerning the formation of new social media rules.

Pakistani officials have requested AIC and its members to communicate with the advisory committee and voice their concerns and apprehensions on the proposed regulatory measures.

According to the document titled “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”, social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, will have to register with the government within three months of coming into force of the new rules. But these rules, argue tech companies, also empower the government to control information and use it for its ‘vested’ political interests.

Read more: Facebook & Twitter crack down on state-linked accounts used for manipulation

The AIC’s response might have rattled the Pakistani government as they have threatened to abandon their services in Pakistan, sending 70 million internet users into digital darkness.

While tech companies claim that they are not against the regulation of social media in order to curb the spread of fake news, the way in which these regulations have been enacted has made AIC members re-evaluate their willingness to operate in Pakistan.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have expressed severe reservations over the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) recent decision to ‘strictly’ regulate digital media in Pakistan.

“Such a move – which has been made without consulting civil society stakeholders – has no credible justification,” HRCP Chairperson Dr Mehdi Hassan said in a press statement.

It is important to note that authorities in Pakistan believe that there is no formal mechanism to control or counter fake news. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa said that there was no mechanism available to stop the fake news and anti-state propaganda on social media. He urged the government, tech-giants to sit together and formulate a policy in order to legislate on the matter to protect citizens, and ensure ‘transparent and reliable sources of information’.

Read more: Facebook & Twitter will quit Pakistan if freedom of speech is curbed

Speaking at a meeting of the NA Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication, Bajwa said: “The social media platforms do not have their offices here and neither do they give any explanation for their non-cooperation.”

Committee Chairperson Ali Khan Jadoon presided over the meeting, which was attended by Naz Baloch, Makhdoom Zain Hussain Qureshi, and Muhammad Hashim Notezai, among others.

The PTA chair continued, saying that if social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google cooperated with Pakistan, “then we can track down the IP address from where the fake accounts are being created”. He criticised the social media platforms over their slow response, noting that the companies took time “to remove child pornography and anti-state content”. “After consultations with the [relevant] stakeholders, a national coordinator will be appointed,” he said.

IT & Telecommunication Secretary Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui, on the other hand, informed the committee that there existed no system to monitor social media. “No technology has been made to keep a check on social media,” Siddiqui said, adding that the regularisation could only help keep a check and balance on the platform. “The social media companies will be responsible to remove the content that is insulting and that goes against the state and its culture,” he added.

Read More: India is using Twitter & Facebook as tools to silence Pakistani journalists

Jadoon reminded the committee that Google and Facebook had threatened to shut down their services, while Notezai said: “Banning social media is not the solution. “It will further intensify the matter,” he added.

As per the suggestions of the experts, now the government has decided to bring the tech-companies onboard and devise a policy which is acceptable for all the stakeholders.

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