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

PTI’s government was not expecting such a strong response from the tech-giants. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are ready to leave Pakistan irrespective of the fact that they have over 70 million users here. What should the government do after such outright rejection to accept its new rules?

digital media

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) government was planning to strictly regulate digital media. However, tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter have given a strong threat to the Pakistani government. A report claimed that these companies are willing to halt operations in Pakistan if the government forces them to curb free speech.

The joint response from Asian Internet Coalition (AIC) might have rattled the Pakistani government as they have threatened to abandon their services in Pakistan, sending 70 million internet users into digital darkness.

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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.

Citizens Protection Rules 2020

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.

They will be required to establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address located in Islamabad within the same period. Experts believe that Pakistan may not be able to ‘compel’ these companies to establish offices in Islamabad. However, this is a clear message to these tech-companies that Pakistan cares about its national society and cyberspace.

Digital media companies will have to appoint in Pakistan, a focal person based in Pakistan for coordination with the National Coordinator and the concerned authority within three months of the date of coming into force of these rules.

They will have to establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within 12 months to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy.

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The companies will be required to remove, suspend or disable access to such account, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries and posts on online content that are involved in spreading of fake news or defamation and violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan.

Government faces criticism

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.

The government has repeatedly maintained the new rules have not been notified as yet. Senator Faisal Javed Khan explained in a TV talk-show that the document was leaked and had not been officially notified. He also said that the government was in contact with the tech-companies and all other stakeholders. “The government is intended to regulate digital media in the best national interest. We do not want to curb freedom, and that is very clear,” he added.

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It is worth mentioning that Twitter suspended several accounts belonging to Pakistanis after they raised India’s illegal annexation of occupied Kashmir. Notably, the issue began when the platform was used by thousands of Pakistani and Kashmiri users to praise Prime Minister Imran Khan for raising the Kashmir issue and exposing the Indian government’s policy of ethnic cleansing in meetings with different world leaders and especially in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Twitter even suspended the official account of Punjab chief minister’s former spokesperson Shahbaz Gill and personal account of Dr. Faisal, Pakistan’s Foreign Office’s Spokesperson.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said that it considered the Twitter admin’s action against the set principles of freedom of speech.

The decision to approach digital media companies to ensure that they help Pakistan protect its citizens and national security is both much-needed and laudable. However, the government’s insistence that nobody may be allowed to criticize the national institution does not appear to be a decision in line with the international standards of freedom of expression. Taxpayers have all the rights to question the performance and policies of any national institution. This becomes even more important in transitional democracies like ours where institutions are not strong.

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