The year 2021 marked a continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the “new normal” where the prevalence of technology in our lives and our dependence on it was solidified. This was increasingly true in Pakistan as digital connectivity rose in the country to over 50 percent. According to the PTA, the country currently has 107 million mobile internet subscribers and 110 million broadband subscribers. This rise in connectivity however was not experienced uniformly. Access varied, often along lines of class, geographical location, gender, and ability, and raised several issues of digital freedoms in these spaces.
The digital legal landscape in Pakistan was in increasing flux as regulatory tensions from the preceding year spilled into 2021. Despite court challenges and opposition from social media giants, the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 were notified in October after consultations initiated by the government. The Rules sought to expand the powers of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to regulate online content and increase its ability to exercise unprecedented control over social media companies, which includes asking these companies to open offices within the country, respond to content removal requests within 48 hours, and store critical data within the boundaries of Pakistan. These Rules are currently under challenge at the Islamabad High Court for being ultra vires of Section 37 of its parent Act, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, and violating the constitution. It remains to be seen whether the current version of the Rules passes constitutional muster. Also, during the year, the Ministry of Information introduced a draft proposal to establish the highly contentious Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) which sought to consolidate regulation of content from print, electronic and social media under one body. This proposal was vociferously resisted by journalist groups and civil society, forcing the government to reconsider.
Regardless of these challenges, it seems that the PTA had no trouble flexing its regulatory muscle as it continued to ban, or threaten to ban major social media platforms. TikTok in particular met the ire of the Authority as it was banned and unbanned three times during this year alone — first by the Peshawar High Court, then on the orders of the Sindh High Court, and lastly with a five-month-long ban by the PTA itself. Each time the justification for the ban revolved around the platform’s inability to regulate “immoral” and “inappropriate” content. Both the courts and the PTA failed however to adequately define what constituted such content. Meanwhile, it seemed that platforms such as TikTok were busy removing huge amounts of content originating from Pakistan. The fact that TikTok removed six million videos in the first quarter of 2021 and nine million in the second quarter of the year, which constituted the second highest volume of video removal in the world, punctures holes in the narrative that the platform has not been cooperating with the PTA. Meanwhile, the volume of blocked content by the PTA tipped at 980,000 links containing content deemed “objectionable” without much transparency. Additionally, internet shutdowns and nationwide social media bans were experienced during the year, often justified under the garb of “security concerns”.
While content moderation is an issue that many governments and regulators are grappling with across the world, the blunt instrument of banning entire platforms and amassing broad powers to control content online barely speaks to the complicated questions of making social media platforms accountable and moderating content in 2021, rather more to a desire to exercise arbitrary control over these spaces.
A revised draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill was circulated by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) for comments and consultation. While the Bill is a marked improvement from earlier drafts and has been modeled after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it still contains provisions on data localization and a data protection authority that lacks independence from the federal government.
“38 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet and 94 percent less likely to own a mobile money account”.
These developments have rendered the promise of a “Digital Pakistan” a distant dream. On one hand, the MOITT has grandiose plans to launch 5G services in the country by 2023, but many areas still lack access to reliable internet. Despite promises to restore mobile internet connections in former FATA, little headway took place this year. The government has increased taxes on the purchase of mobile devices and laptops, further increasing barriers to financial accessibility in an already low-income country. Access along gender lines remains a persistent issue as Pakistan has one of the highest gender digitals divides in the world, with women “38 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet and 94 percent less likely to own a mobile money account”. The primary reason for the lack of mobile ownership among women has been found to be familial disapproval which speaks to the need for gender-sensitive policy-making that addresses the specific barriers that women face in accessing technologies.
Overall, digital freedoms remain a contentious issue as the government tries to balance the need for fostering a conducive digital economy while at the same time satiating its need for control over speech and narratives in online spaces. Pakistan was ranked as “Not Free” in the Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House, a ranking it has had the dubious honor of retaining for a number of years. Other watchdogs have raised alarm regarding the increasing use of laws to silence critics and journalists in online spaces as marking a decline in online freedoms. As the challenges of digital spaces evolve, little is being done to approach emerging issues of algorithmic decision-making, data justice, and digital security in a thoughtful manner that brings together different stakeholders from a multitude of disciplines. If we continue on this trajectory, online spaces will continue to be unequal and unfree — a little more so every year.
courtesy : TheNews