In 2014, Estonia became the first country to offer virtual residency (e-residency) to foreigners. E-residency enables any person in any country to operate a company in Estonia remotely. Not only can someone operating under this system generate business for his company by providing information-technology enabled services (ITeS), Estonia can generate revenue by collecting taxes from foreigners who operate remotely from their own homelands.
This can be viewed as the future of the world, where expanding technology and digital media will create the concept of “electronic citizens” of the entire globe. Developing economies will definitely benefit from this just as Estonia has. However, in Pakistan the government is incapable of thinking of ways to use technology for the betterment of the economy and to attract foreign investment. To the contrary: All the energies of the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) regime are spent curbing the freedom of expression and shrinking the digital space, without realizing its impact on the country’s global image and economy.
In a recent move to curb the freedom of expression in digital space, the PTI government approved a new rule requiring social-media companies to open offices in Pakistan. This rule is to be added to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016.
Under the new regulation, all social-media companies based outside the country will need to register in Pakistan within three months, and should open offices in Islamabad. The rule requires them to appoint representatives to deal with a national coordination authority, which will regulate the content on social-media platforms. These companies will be asked to set up their data servers in Pakistan within a year, and they will be required to provide data of accounts found guilty of targeting state institutions, spreading fake news or harassment, and issuing statements that harm national security or with blasphemous content, to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The PTI regime has already silenced dissent on mainstream media by banning dissident journalists from appearing on television channels or writing for local newspapers. However, social-media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn provide space for such people to share their views and their work with local and global viewers and reader. This new law, concocted in the name of regulating social media, actually is directed toward suppressing the growing dissent on social media that gradually is becoming a platform of catharsis and expression for the educated masses in Pakistan. Those who do not agree with the policies of the government can express their dissenting opinions through a tweet or a Facebook post, while the journalists who are banned from mainstream media share the links of their publications and videos on these platforms, which has given the masses a new platform not only to see or hear alternative perspectives but also to interact with the senior journalists and intellectuals.
Since social media play an important role in shaping public opinions, the PTI government, already weakened by its inability to govern the country and steer it out of the economic crisis, has decided to put restrictions on these platforms. But it seems that whoever advised the government to pass this bill does not have a clue about how the digital space works and how social-media companies operate.
People usually trust social-media companies because they know that their privacy will be protected. For instance, WhatsApp is being used more often for messaging than mobile-phone SMS (short messaging service) as WhatsApp is considered more secure thanks to its encrypted messages. Likewise Twitter many times in the past has refused the requests of Pakistani officials to provide data on its users. So any company providing a social-media platform that operates globally will never agree to leak user data to government officials as it could damage its credibility all over the world.
This means that companies like Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp will not accept the illegitimate demands of the current Pakistani government. So either the government has to take a step back and repeal this new bill or social media will be banned in Pakistan.
It seems that this government is more interested in imposing a regressive Chinese model of control over the digital space so it can influence its citizens with propaganda and keep them in ignorance. But even in terms of attracting foreign investment, this move is disastrous, as no investor in the modern age chooses a country where the digital space is shrunk and controlled. China is an exception because its economy is dependent on low-cost manufacturing. In any case, irrespective of whether this new law will work or not, the question remains: Why are Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet are so afraid of dissent?
Khan could have never thought about curbing social media if the powers that be had not given him the nod. In fact, the blame also lies with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), as both voted in favor of the controversial electronic crime act of 2016 in parliament without consulting the stakeholders or keeping in view the consequences of such a law on freedom of expression.
So in a century where the world is thinking about such innovations as Estonia’s virtual residency and even the repressive regimes in the Persian Gulf region are opening up their digital spaces to generate business and to invite freelancers and journalists from all over the globe, Pakistan’s invisible forces with the help of a puppet prime minister are trying to take the country back to the era of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Ayub Khan when freedom of expression was suppressed.
However, with the invention of digital platforms and social media, it is almost impossible to silence dissenting voices. If the draconian laws of Ayub Khan and Zia were not enough to silence dissent, this new law to curb social media will not work either. It will only make Pakistan a laughing-stock, while IT entrepreneurs and digital platforms will hesitate to invest in the country because of its regressive laws and curbs on cyberspace.
If the intention of the government was to regulate social and digital media, it could have initiated a debate in parliament and all stakeholders, especially the digital platforms and journalists, would have been taken into confidence. However, the government preferred to act like a martial-law regime by not allowing any debate in parliament or including input from the digital and social-media providers and journalists.
Then there is another problem: Who will decide which content is or is not against national security? Up to now even the term “national security” is vague and keeps changing according to the requirements of the security establishment.
It seems we will witness another year of regression, where more sedition charges will be framed against the dissenting voices and where instead of inviting the world through digital space to contribute to the country’s economy, the government will make sure that Pakistan remains in the stone age, where the masses should believe what the government and the establishment decide or say and keep worshipping the gods created by this hybrid regime.