Digital sovereignty vs freedom of speech?
The PTI government has fallen by the wayside with the proposed digital regulation after a violent protest from the media and journalist community calling for a fight to preserve freedom of expression. While the government is considering some restrictions on social media content, mainstream journalists are adamant not to allow such restrictions, believing that electronic media is already over-regulated.
But is the government right in imposing restrictions, and how far must we go to uphold constitutional guarantees such as freedom of expression? Are we aware of the new challenges that come with the advent of evolving cyberspace?
The debate is more relevant in the broader context of new realities: the exponential growth of internet use, its impact on consumers, especially youth, the power of international media platforms and the abuse of cyberspace by hackers, terrorists and dark propagandists in the post-Covid-19 world.
In terms of net usage, Covid-19 has multiplied reliance on the internet as a vehicle for education, communication, diplomacy, commerce and services, from take-aways to household shopping. By staying home to avoid a contraction of Covid-19, the physical-social space has shrunk dramatically, scattering virtual interactions and communication.
The extent of the digitization of Pakistani society can by and large be measured by these numbers: In April 2021, the proportion of Internet users in Pakistan is almost 50 percent, that is around 100 million citizens, 70 percent of consumers are young people – a good advantage as well bad news. The good news is that the teens have increasing aspirations, notoriety, and new ways of exploring opportunities in their lives through the internet. The bad news is that they are also exposed to darker propaganda, twisted narratives, influences, and ominous content aimed at their innocent minds in order to join certain agendas.
Since cyberspace is a new realm, the state does not have digital sovereignty, which has serious implications that unfold in several ways: in addition to sexting among children, a 2-year-old can watch cartoons that are equally tagged for other messages. Then there are bomb building guides and all sorts of terrorist activities that can be carried out as a lone wolf warrior. While various chat rooms can encourage them to soak up the dark propaganda and respond with it. For example, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq was due to web-based propaganda, its influence, and its intelligence operations.
In the Pakistani context, the virtual world poses new challenges, especially for the youth of Balochistan, as it exposes them to the consumption of all kinds of information, propaganda and the influences of militants and terrorist groups. Balochistan has around 70 percent young people under the age of 22. You have the keyboards and the time of the whole world, but can hardly make any sense between valid information and dark propaganda.
The influence of militant operations and their sponsors through dozens of websites and servers – operating mostly from India – underscores the vulnerability of youth to access their nefarious activities from a narrative building by using terrorist bombing incidents to delegitimize the statehood of Pakistan .
Worse still, the manipulation of Balochistan’s youth through social media is an art that only serves to exacerbate prejudices, stereotypes and misrepresentations of the future aspirations of Pakistan and Balochistan through the CPEC and their path of development. It is very important that the authorities concerned invest in digitized projects to engage the youth of Balochistan and to counter-narrate the militants and also to check what is being spread on social media.
At the national level, the network platform is a digital window to be an interface between the individual and the state, between society and the state, and therefore requires a legitimate, much larger dispute about which restrictions and regulations should have place and who should be subject to “the good”. should decide for the state and society.
Learning from Western experiences, hackers, cyber schemers and dark propagandists are already undermining the digital sovereignty of advanced countries like America, Britain and Russia.
Recent examples of how the digital threat is becoming a bigger problem for advanced economies in real life include: Recently, non-state actors attacked a gas pipeline called the Colonial Pipeline in America that disrupted supplies to the entire east coast. More recently, ransomware (extortion through digital extortion or corporate hacking) and cyberattacks have targeted financial markets, schools, hospitals and other government networks and influenced operations for various purposes such as recruitment, terrorism and other subversive criminal activity.
In other instances, India, with Twitter submitting Indian IT laws, and the power of private giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to freeze individual accounts – the freezing of President Trump’s accounts on the pretext of checking hate speech – demonstrate the extent of power , a) the influence of global social media giants and b) the limits of freedom of expression.
Interestingly, India has banned Chinese apps like TikTalk and WeChat. Most European countries, including the UK and France, have banned Hawaii 5G. While China has threatened two EU companies like Erricson and Samsung with the ban, it already has its own version of FB, Twitter and Whatsapp. The above examples have brought a new debate to the fore – de facto corporate sovereignty vs. the digital sovereignty of the state.
Lessons learned: Pakistan must also move from analogue sovereignty to digital sovereignty, which includes control and direction of anarchic content, software development, and corporate power. What is meant here is not a point extrapolation of digital sovereignty with complete border control, but a state that controls the speed of companies and regulates the content of the digital social space so that the integrity and sanctity of the state and society are not endangered.
The problem Pakistan is facing is that overall we do not yet need to develop strategic coherence on the challenges posed by digital threats.
Our elite, from the media to the judiciary to politics, must recognize compelling cases to assert digital sovereignty by imposing rules on free content that regulate the boundaries of cyberspace and develop the ability to address virtual threats to their digital systems and society. on the whole.
Instead of sticking to archaic laws and principles that are supposed to meet the challenges of bygone times, we have to weigh the arguments of the state for regulated digital platforms and content and the requirement of freedom of expression, which by its nature is not absolute and is already subject to limits western societies.
Currently, the boards of directors of individuals and large corporations decide what to say and how to say, hence the law for themselves in which they should be subject to the law of a sovereign state: this should be the starting point for the country.
The recent debate about freedom of expression and the anarchic content on social media platforms need to be understood and widely discussed in order to draw a line as to where a state can regulate and how far it can in terms of recognizing the limits of free expression for us meet the challenges of the new de facto realities of the virtual world.
(Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, politician from Balochistan and a former advisor to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communications. He has remained affiliated with the BBC World Service. He is also chairman of the Center for Geo-Politics & Balochistan. He tweeted @ Jan_Achakzai)