What are we afraid of? Myopic is the only word that comes to mind when trying to describe the approach our government and institutions have adopted towards the Internet and social media, or any media in fact. With each step we appear hell-bent on moving back rather than forward. Our authorities appear to pay no heed to the costs our policies will extract from our future. The latest rules the government has framed to govern social media may be alarming, but by now they are no longer surprising. For all the prime minister’s talk of a ‘Digital Pakistan’ that would be both progressive and inclusive, the policies his administration keep coming up with betray an allergy to both ideas.
The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020, framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA), subject internet service providers to the same restrictions and requirements that the government earlier imposed on social media platforms. As with other recent social media rules, it is the vagueness and opacity regarding what actually constitutes objectionable content that has stakeholders up in arms. But if our authorities have shown anything when it comes to all matters Internet, it is that they do not really care what stakeholders have to say. Pakistani ISPs were quick to reject the new rules, as they should, but now tech giants have woken up from their slumber as well. In a development that was always inevitable, they have warned that they will simply pack up and leave. So much for ‘Digital Pakistan’.
A certain generation is no doubt thinking so what. As far as they are concerned, social media and the Internet were an aberration to begin with. Like the generations that preceded them, they make no effort to keep their nostalgia for ‘simpler times’ secret. Even so, it is only Pakistan that stands to lose. As things stand, we are not a market the world cares enough to make any exceptions for. And with shortsighted steps like this, we only keep proving that point. There are those that constantly remind us how full of talent Pakistan is, but talent is nothing if it is not allowed to flourish. One hopes that sense will at some point prevail, for our own sake.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2020.