Reimagining the internet

RECENT attempts to ban applications and the tradition of censoring content on the internet are rooted in a misunderstanding of the internet in policymaking and adjudication circles. There is a dire need to reimagine the internet in order for rights to be protected, the digital economy to grow, and investor confidence to improve.

The internet is a medium unlike any other; attempting to ‘control’ it is impractical, counterproductive and ineffective apart from being problematic in principle considering the protections Pakistan’s Constitution offers under i) Article 19 that guarantees the right to freedom of speech and press freedom, ii) Article 19-A that guarantees the right to information, and iii) Article 10-A that guarantees the right to due process.

A surprise effort was made in February by the otherwise missing-from-the-scene IT ministry to get the cabinet’s approval for the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, under Part 2, Section 37 of the Protection of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, that deals with “Unlawful online content”. The Rules were later “suspended” on the orders of the prime minister after domestic and international backlash. It was an ill-thought-out effort on the part of the ministry. It showed a blatant disregard for fundamental rights and the well-being of an economy with an ever-growing tech sector estimated at $3.5 billion that is projected to double in the next two to four years, with IT exports having crossed the billion-dollar mark in 2017-18, according to the Board of Investment (BoI).

The Rules go beyond the scope of powers defined under the already problematic Section 37 of Peca. They require data localisation and local offices of social media companies already overwhelmed by a plethora of undemocratic requests for state censorship and enforcement of local rules for social media companies when their universal community standards are ever-evolving. This makes the situation of internet freedom, citizen’s digital rights, and industry’s ease of doing business a lot worse, and undermines Digital Pakistan goals set by the government itself.

Companies are more likely to invest in Pakistan if there are no threats of arbitrary measures by the government to block apps and websites; Pakistan’s 2008 blocking of YouTube had affected the latter’s global access; and the current threats of blocking internet platforms by the Pakistan Telecommuni­cation Authority (PTA) make it a not very charming destination for internet companies.

A fundamental shift in how the internet is imagined in Pakistan requires amending Peca to delete Section 37 which deals with “Unlawful online content”. It has wide-ranging impact as a tool of censorship in the hands of the state, and is often abused under the garb of protecting citizens or national security.

Section 37 has been abused by the PTA to censor a political party’s website before the 2018 general elections, censor local and international news websites, and send requests to social media companies to take down content critical of state policies among other content. The Pakistan government’s requests to Facebook accounted for an astounding 31 per cent of the total requests from governments received by Facebook globally. The over 10,000 requests to Google by the PTA in the past decade ironically included a request to take down an open letter by Pakistani academics calling for an end to curbs on academic freedom in the country.

Such embarrassing steps make a mockery of our democracy and rights enshrined in the Constitution. Moreover, they also negatively impact the confidence that Pakistan’s booming tech industry and efforts of the BoI have garnered as evident from Pakistan’s 28-point jump in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2020. Arbitrary blocking of applications this year such as BIGO live, videogame PUBG, and threats of banning popular video-sharing app TikTok, and a judge’s remarks regarding the potential banning of YouTube pose a challenge to this developing improvement.

Without Section 37 of Peca and the “Citizen Protection” Rules under it, citizens still have adequate avenues of protection. These include Peca’s Sections 10, 11, 12, 16, 20, 21, 22, and 24 that deal with cyberterrorism; hate speech; recruitment, funding, or planning of terrorism; unauthorised use of identity information; dignity of a natural person; modesty of a person or minor; child pornography; and cyberstalking respectively. Subsections under Sections 20, 21, 22 and 24 enable aggrieved parties to apply to the PTA for “removal, destruction” or “blocking” of such information.

Additionally, community guidelines of social networking websites cover wide categories of harmful content through reporting mechanisms managed by dedicated teams, including local language moderators, that act upon complaints by users and local civil society organisations as well as governments.

What are some key aspects of the nature of the internet that are important to understand before setting forth on internet policymaking? First, the voluntary nature of accessing content on the internet whereby the user seeks content by actively searching or subscribing to sources of information. No content on the internet is unavoidable and self-regulation is easily possible.

Second, the internet is a global repository of information without borders for access to knowledge and information. Attempts to build walls on the internet and localising it are ineffective and impact a country’s progress.

Third, control is user-centric, where internet platforms offer a strong element of control to the user through the ability to subscribe, unsubscribe, block, mute, set filters for children, and also report content they find inappropriate to the platform. Action is taken if the offence is of a serious nature.

Lastly, information technology and the internet is one of the most rapidly evolving fields, so security of online systems and ways of bypassing them are also ever-evolving. Hence, logic dictates that policies be based on this understanding, otherwise they risk being short-term stopgaps. Banned apps and websites even in China are easily accessible through VPNs.

What Pakistan needs is a robust IT ministry that pushes industry and citizen rights-centric policies that ameliorate Pakistan’s digital transformation, rather than parallel competing and confusing structures that end up letting draconian and ill-informed paternalistic measures slip into enforcement to the detriment of the future of Pakistani citizens.

The article was originally published in Dawn, August 30, 2020.

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