ACCORDING to a report of HootSuite Digital Pakistan published in Jan 2020, about 76.38 million people use Internet in Pakistan. The amount of active social media users has exceeded 37 million. While comparing 2019 and 2020, we can see a massive uplift of 11 million Internet users and 2.4 million social media users. 35% of total population of Pakistan uses and depends upon Internet. Youtube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are the most frequently used social media platforms in the country respectively. Due to mammoth growth of Social Media in Pakistan, social media debate has turned antagonistic. There are hundreds of occasions when personal attacks on social media turned out violent and brought to streets. There are numerous examples where the online media platforms have been filled with posts, comments and tweets that threaten, humiliate and degrade people.
Nowadays there are spoilers in the society who are using social media to spread hatred. We have seen that this industry has been emerging day and night but at the same time increasing an unclean and toxic internet space for our youths, which is polluting their minds. Due to domestic, regional, international and geographical challenges Pakistan is already passing through fifth generation war which is now fought for polluting minds of youth. Our enemies like India are involved in spreading fake, false, unethical, sectarian and anti-state news, rumours, propaganda and analysis.
There are various quarters inside the country which are involved in over stepping from state’s red lines on online platforms and spreading vague and factually incorrect news. It is not about agreeing or disagreeing with people in power, it is about being responsible. Freedom of expression should not be linked with something above the law. Freedom of expression is the constitutional right of every citizen; however, this right is usually wrongly exercised and misunderstood. A few segments of the society often exploit laws by terming them against freedom of expression by quoting some unrealistic and factually incorrect figures against different groups of people such as minorities, journalists, human rights activists, etc.
On 20 Oct 2020 government of Pakistan issued new social media rules “Removal and Blocking Unlawful Online Content, 2020”. These laws are an assurance to citizens to participate effectively in the functioning of the state. From this initiative, a balance would be maintained between the provision of freedom of expression/speech amid ensuring law & order, peace and security within Pakistan, which owns diversity in terms of views, faiths and beliefs.
Laws are very important in governing the freedom to express oneself, the “Removal and Blocking Unlawful Online Content, 2020” law will also allow strict action against the powerful violators while blessing the peaceful segment of the society. The state bodies, will abide by these laws and these laws would be used to bring diversity in the online platforms. As the freedom of expression is a basic human right, there should be no doubt that it will be exercised with its full spirit. However, this unlimited freedom should be within certain boundaries and this would be ensured by the state that these rules would not be used for any sort of victimization.
Internationally, we have a lot of examples where almost entire world can be seen making and implementing rules and regulations to monitor and manage the illegal, immoral, hate speech, fake and factually incorrect spread of information on social media. For example, “China’s Cyber Security law” prohibits publication and transmission of false information that may disrupt the economic or social order. “Saudi Anti-Cyber Crime Law” promotes imprisonment and huge fines. Australia passed legislation to impose huge fine for social media companies if they fail to remove abhorrent violent material. UK also has regulations for social media companies including fines, site blocks and prosecution of senior management of companies. “India IT Act 2000” says that social networking sites in India are liable for various acts or omissions that are punishable under Indian laws. French laws require social media companies to delete certain content within an hour. “EU’s digital chief” has invited companies including Google, Apple, Amzaon and Facebook to draft rules to curb their powers. “UAE Cyber Crime law” creates additional categories of offenses addressing the increase in the incidence of cybercrimes. Bangladesh “ICT Act, 2006” and “Digital Security Act 2018” covers all the areas of negative propaganda against defamation, hurting religious values, spreading of hatred etc.
These laws will not impact the digital economy of Pakistan neither it will have any negative influence on technology related companies. These laws will ensure that E-commerce, education, business activities, virtual social meetings should not get compromised. These rules are only made to filter the content which is against our national ideology, religion, state, ethics, culture and moral fiber of society. The content of hate speech will be removed or blocked with 24 hours as a normal operation while within 6 hours in case of emergency. These rules protect the basic human rights with respect to freedom of speech as defined by Article 19 of Constitution.
There is also an interesting aspect that PTA will not restrict or disrupt flow of information except in defined scenarios. Social media companies will ensure presence of their representatives inside Pakistan which will be beneficial in the form of regular coordination. These rules are made after detailed deliberation with all stakeholders. The identity and source of online complaints by individual citizens, companies and organizations will be protected as well. These laws are welcomed by all segments of the society and viewed that it is national responsibility for making social media and internet space less venomous for public users and protecting virtual boundaries of the nation.
—The writer is an academic researcher & media analyst.