How Pakistan Killed Its Own Digital Dreams | Opinion

Back in 2018, a United Nations Development Programme report said 64 percent of Pakistan's population was under the age of 30. Pakistan has one of the world's youngest populations.

In South Asia, it is one-upped only by Afghanistan. This means that 64 percent of Pakistan is made up of Millennials, Gen-Z and whatever the new generation will call itself. These generations have and will grow up in times of increased digitization. With the onset of the global pandemic, they're even learning and working digitally. These young people are Pakistan's foundation. They will ultimately construct the country's digital economy.

In late 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Digital Pakistan initiative. The measure was focused on equity, providing internet access across the country, promoting tech skill sharing and creating an atmosphere for digital startup growth and innovation.

While the official Digital Pakistan project aimed to focus on digital payments and government processes, this was the first time in Pakistan that the government took an all-around, national-level initiative aimed at progressing the country's digital economy.

It was an encouraging sign for those looking to be involved in this field. Previously, Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, launched the Arfa Karim Technology Park which provided space, guidance and support for all new digital startups in the region.

Along with this project, for the first time the prime minister's office actively engaged with content creators. They invited YouTubers, Instagram influencers and international vloggers to the PM's house to discuss how to use digital spaces to propel Pakistan's image.

Additionally, they discussed how to develop Pakistan's burgeoning digital economy. If you looked at just these examples, you'd see a government dedicated to creating a healthy digital atmosphere in their country by engaging the youth and working with state resources. The reality was and is definitely different.

Challenges emerged from the very government that created the idea of a Digital Pakistan. This past year lay bare the promises of an equal internet, and brought with it an onslaught of bans, censorship and draconian laws, so much so that internet giants like Google and Facebook threatened to leave the country, to no longer establish operational offices.

The government's blatant attempts at controlling social media and digital content began in February 2020, when the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 were released.

These rules were supposedly targeting over-the-top media content (which is any and all video content that can be streamed online. Shows on Netflix are an example of over-the-top content) and streaming services. The government expanded the powers of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to the point that they could appoint a national coordinator who had the power to block online content (Section 7 of this law elaborates on these powers) and demand social media companies remove what they please.

These laws also put social media companies in a very tight place; according to them, social media companies were essentially beholden to the Pakistani government's requests for content takedown and citizen data.

The law specified that data must be handed over unencrypted, so as to facilitate the government's needs. The problematic stances of the law garnered criticism from civil society and stakeholders within Pakistan's digital economy. The government eventually struck the law down with the promise of a stakeholder meeting and consultation with relevant stakeholders. This promise was never fulfilled, thus bringing us to the government of Pakistan's other attempt at presenting the "Social Media Rule."

In 2020, the Pakistani government presented another version of this law. These rules, called the "Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules, 2020," are categorically worse than the previous iteration, with regards to intrusions on privacy and the allotment of major powers to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which has proven to be a problematic institution when it comes to digital censorship.

"The rules are quite worrisome in terms of the broad criteria they lay down for the content moderation of social media, adding more caveats to the freedom of expression through Section 4. It includes vague terms like fake and false information and 'decency or immorality,'" said Shmyla Khan, director of research and policy at Digital Rights Foundation, a digital rights NGO in Pakistan.

A student wearing a face mask walks past a wall mural on a street in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on October 6, 2020. FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images

Khan added that these rules give social media companies anywhere from eight to 24 hours to respond to obligations to remove content. This, according to her, gives platforms no time to accurately manage the situation, thereby giving the government wide powers of banning entire platforms and content at will.

In reaction to this new law being ushered in, the Asia Internet Coalition expressed deep concern. The coalition includes tech giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook, who have been keeping an eye on Pakistan's censorship developments since the first law was passed in February 2020.

In a statement they said that these new rules would make it extremely difficult for its members to operate in Pakistan.

"The draconian data localization requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan's digital economy off from the rest of the world," the statement reads.

This reaction highlights one major policy problem in Pakistan, and it has to do with the attitude of the government with regards to the internet and their need to police morality, decency and behavior among its citizens.

"There is a deep distrust of citizens and their activities online. Rather than looking at the internet as a site of innovation and creation, our activities are viewed with distrust. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way citizens are viewed by the state before we see meaningful initiatives that truly trickle down to every citizen," said Khan, of the Digital Rights Foundation.

In the time between these two rules being notified, the PTA gave us a taste of how digital life might look like in Pakistan if these rules were in place, without opposition.

The PTA banned dating apps in the country, including Tinder and Grindr, temporarily banned TikTok for the promotion of immoral content on the platform and even banned popular streaming app Bigo Live.

The authorities banned access to Indian streaming service Zee5 because it aired a Pakistani online series called Churails (roughly translated to Witches), which was the first attempt by the local entertainment industry to produce a feminist, female-led show.

The commonality between all of these is that all of the content was reported by citizens in Pakistan for their apparent immoral tone and were consequently banned. There are no checks and balances within the process. It is only when there's an outcry on social media and from civil society that such decisions get reversed or are brought into "consideration."

Pakistani authorities act in ambiguity, and this gray area is where they enforce their worldviews onto digital experiences and content. Words with open-ended interpretations like "national morality" and "civic sense" are used freely by the PTA and PEMRA to justify their harsh decisions.

Pakistan's digital dreams are narrowly defined, as Shmyla Khan described. The government's dream is only focused on economic gains and reducing corruption in the country. Both these aims have been remained relatively unrealized.

The welfare of the average Pakistani citizen is not front and center of their policy. For Pakistan to truly enter the digital realm, control over content, access and opportunity needs to shift out of the hands of the state and into the hands of the people.

Pakistan is an overwhelmingly young country. Holding back its youth will do them a great disservice, one that may never be forgiven.

Arslan Athar is a freelance writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. He writes about culture, entertainment and technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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