Defending our digital area | By Lt Gen Raza Muhammad Khan (R)

Defending our digital domain

Despite resource constraints, Pakistan’s security is nearly impregnable against conventional aggression and our adversaries know this.

They have therefore decided, as recent events indicate, to target our unity, will to fight, internal security and minds, through exploitation of our most abandoned flank, in the digital domain.

Consider the following: In Pakistan, there are 190 million cellular subscribers, out of whom 100 million own smart phones with access to Facebook (FB) ; Whatsapp; Instagram; YouTube; and twitter etc

This has led to growth of awareness, learning and e-commerce with around $ 6 B, spent on business transactions this year and digitization of our trade, economy and education are encouraging and welcome developments.

However, the same media is abused by many, which has deeply influenced and adversely affected our politics, national security and ethos, and sometimes it appears that the minds of a large segment of the population, may have been completely hijacked, through a combination of various allurements and fake narratives based on distorted truth and falsehoods.

Addiction to unrestrained social media, with cravings similar to intoxicants and drugs, is playing havoc with the developing minds of the adolescences, which are prone to risk-taking, that are intensified by social media.

Besides, social media overuse is inducing psychological conditions like anxiety, depression, acute polarization, extremism, cyber bullying, antisocial behavior, vandalism and diminished wellbeing among the population.

(Similar findings are recorded in US Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, University of Pennsylvania and the Wall Street Journal).

Many people (some fired by TV channels) have commenced their private You Tube transmissions, without any license, for money, cheap popularity or political ambitions.

The social media pervasiveness has enabled numerous state and non-state actors to weaponize it, for behavior control and perception management, which has endangered both the people and the state in Pakistan.

But as the state is oblivious, unprepared or unwilling to face these challenges, we continue to suffer.

Regretfully, this also includes domestic attempts to subvert the loyalties of the defense forces or discrediting them and brazen threats to law enforcing agencies responsible for internal security and the judiciary.

This milieu continues to be exacerbated by our many external nemesis and their internal accomplices, as revealed in fresh investigations, reported by multiple sources, that 18 Indian, 33 other foreign and 580 Pakistani social media accounts were involved in the matter.

Transparency and the need for social media algorithmic audits are emphasized globally and the EU Parliament recently enacted Digital Services Act, making EU the first to set a comprehensive standard for regulating digital space.

This legislation obliges these firms to share their data with not just the regulators but with the users as well.

The EU model has been adopted by Turkey, Kenya, South Korea, Mauritius, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, and Argentina.

In India, social media is controlled since 2021, with their offices established in the country for filing of grievances by the users.

These have to be acknowledged within 24 hours and resolved within 15 days, failing which, users may approach superior courts.

Besides, they are using the multi-million Israeli spy ware, Pegasus and other means to monitor our communications and security, gather our perceptions and weaken us internally.

In the US, Trump’s use of social media was banned by Facebook indefinitely and by Twitter permanently for misleading content in 2021.

Both in India and the US, defamatory or other illegal content can’t escape legal liability. China has ensured ‘Platform Regulation’ prior to ‘Content Regulation’ and criminalizes online activities undermining government, security organizations or eroding national unity, while non-licensed websites can only re-publish the content of legalized sites.

Our laws must also keep pace with technology to save the country from internal chaos and instability, even if it means blocking some social media accounts or the closure of some platforms or channels.

FB and You Tube were blocked for years in the past, for blasphemous content, till the concern was addressed by Google, and heavens did not fall.

Our legislation must make social media enterprises compliant with registration with PTA, establishing their offices and appointing authorized, grievance redressal officers in Pakistan.

These companies and our ISPs must deploy mechanisms to ensure that local laws about security of Pakistan (Article 260 of Constitution), public order or safety (Chapter-XIV of the PPC, 1860), decency and morality, are obeyed.

Violators must be dealt with severely, including heavy fines; defamation must be made a nonbailable offense and should encompass initiation of criminal proceeding by individuals and institutions, with prison terms on conviction enhanced from three to five years for complains by institutions.

Most of these measures were part of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022 (PECA).

Unfortunately, the Islamabad High Court declared this Ordinance “unconstitutional”, directing the government to ‘probe abuse of the law’.

The government hasn’t challenged this , probably due to pressure by some champions of unbridled media ‘freedom.’

The world is successfully grappling with issues of regulating social media. Pakistan must also establish sovereignty over its unusual cyberspace, for defense of its most venerable digital flank.

This is possible through adequate funding, training, teamwork of PTA, PEMRA, MoIT, FIA, intelligence agencies, judicial support, hiring domain experts, acquiring robust forensic audit and monitoring capacity and effective reactions like location-based filters, geo-blocking, and “Circuit breakers” for disrupting chains of unified sharing.

Finally, as responsible citizens, we must remind ourselves that social media isn’t always a representation of reality; seek the truth ourselves and discard dubious information.

We must also liberate our own and our children’s minds from our ‘smart’ devices, to obviate the pitfalls alluded above, choose social media groups wisely and balance our on and off screen time, to regain and redeem the positive influences and attitudes of our lives .

Sans these defensive mechanisms and responses, our foes, media giants, some megalomaniac politicians and their cyber warriors and Frankensteins, shall continue to imperil us, in disguise of liberty; to shatter our domestic cohesion and tear the very fabric of our society.

—The writer is the former President of the NDU.

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