Government of Pakistan’s “Cyber Incompetence” and the Kashmir Cause

Earlier this month, the Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir, led by Chairman Shehryar Khan Afridi of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), held a detailed briefing with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), All Parties Hurriyat Conference and Canada-Pakistan Global Congress.

The committee grilled Chairman PTA Major General (Retired), Amir Azeem Bajwa, about Facebook and Twitter’s purported refusal to comply with Pakistani laws by setting up representative offices in the country. The lawmakers and other committee members were particularly critical of Facebook for its perceived selected censorship of Pakistani and Kashmiri activists. Reportedly, Chairman Afridi wondered why Facebook was not “blocked” if it “failed to comply” with the federal government’s directions. Mr Amir Hassan, Secretary National Security Division, reportedly urged the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA’s) National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C) to “take action” against “Facebook management” alongside other social media companies of foreign origin.

These statements by an elected lawmaker and a top-level bureaucrat are glaring examples of the major dilemma being faced in Pakistan’s policymaking circles: inadequate, skewed subject knowledge of cyberspace and related regulatory practices. There is a growing preference for punitive deterrence against foreign-origin social media companies instead of inclusive, multi-stakeholder consultations.

Ironically, the PTI-led Government of Pakistan faced public backlash on multiple occasions when it tried to bypass lawmakers and approve certain cyber-related policies to avoid scrutiny and review by stakeholders. More so, that Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah considered the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 as “prima facie in violation of Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution”, referring to clauses guaranteeing freedom of expression. Per the IHC’s directives, the federal government was supposed to amend the aforementioned rules by the end of May 2021. Section 7 of these draft rules binds social media companies to comply with content removal and blocking requests, while Section 6: Subsection 5 empowers the PTA to act against non-compliant service providers.

With a low internet density and negligible user base (compared to other Asian countries), the Government of Pakistan fails to accept that it has to find a workaround to its low bargaining power. Further attempts at coercing social media companies into “absolute compliance” would eventually repel others from investing in Pakistan.

Remarkably, it would appear that members of the Kashmir Committee were unaware that these rules have yet to be formally approved and implemented across the cabinet. This again reveals a lack of regular coordination and communication among multiple policy stakeholders in cyberspace-related issues.

The underlying irony is that the federal government’s own record on freedom of expression remains questionable. The “Annual Pakistan media legal review 2020”, a report prepared by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), noted that internet freedom in Pakistan “declined dramatically” in 2020 due to increased blocking of political, social and cultural websites and “an undeclared policy of connectivity restrictions”.

For years, successive federal governments in Pakistan have tried to “raise the costs” for foreign-origin social media companies at the expense of the domestic IT economy. With a low internet density and negligible user base (compared to other Asian countries), the Government of Pakistan fails to accept that it has to find a workaround to its low bargaining power. Further attempts at coercing social media companies into “absolute compliance” would eventually repel others from investing in Pakistan.

This aggressive policy akin to “either with us or against us”, culminating with nationwide access restriction, is ultimately futile. Even while YouTube was banned in Pakistan, its users found a bypass through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Ordinary internet users aside, the PTI government’s own Digital Pakistan campaign, which spearheaded commendable efforts to authenticate/verify social media accounts of various government organs, could be sent to the backburner, wasting precious time and resources spent in confidence-building with foreign-origin social media companies. It would be logical and in Pakistan’s best interests if further avenues of dialogue are explored.

The most recurring complaints from social media companies based abroad regarding Pakistan pertain to “transparency” and “oversight”. Both the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and PTI regimes failed to promote a truly inclusive multi-stakeholder cyber regulations framework that ensures the protection of national interests without adversely impacting the rights to freedom of expression and information access. In a country where government departments do not publish annual performance reports, where corruption and malpractice are rife and where the bureaucracy is out of tune with international cyber norms, hesitation on the part of foreign-origin social media companies can be partially justified.

With respect to the Kashmir cause, the Government of Pakistan will need to set its own house in order before it can accuse foreign-origin social media companies of “unquestioned compliance” with the Government of India’s directives. For their part, social media and tech giants have been countering efforts by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led union government to impose questionable rules before Pakistan decided to follow suit.

As far as Pakistan’s complaints about selective censorship by Facebook, etcetera are concerned, Islamabad would perhaps need to improve the quality of research and legal homework before forwarding complaints. It is also important that back-channel advocacy is executed by personnel with sufficient qualifications and subject-matter expertise. Case officers in NR3C – FIA and PTA are inducted in a technocratic, skills-based stream and are not usually trained in international cyber norms, lawfare and diversity training. In one instance, an FIA official revealed their training lasts no longer than a month. Moreover, the fact that there is a severe shortage of human resources in cybercrime prosecution means that the burden for cases rests on the shoulders of a select few, who may not be able to devote proper time to case handling.

With respect to the Kashmir cause, the Government of Pakistan will need to set its own house in order before it can accuse foreign-origin social media companies of “unquestioned compliance” with the Government of India’s directives. For their part, social media and tech giants have been countering efforts by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led union government to impose questionable rules before Pakistan decided to follow suit.

Governments across the world have increased their appetite for tech regulation and content oversight. This process can be substantiated by countries that have properly functioning parliaments, well-trained law enforcement and apt subject-matter knowledge.

The most Pakistan can do, predictably, is to ban companies altogether. Arbitrary measures will only repel, rather than encourage companies, to sit across the table for a mutually beneficial relationship. For starters, the Government of Pakistan will have to accept that negotiating with foreign-origin social media companies would involve quid pro quo. How much space is the federal government willing to cede? What are the incentives that could be accrued by these companies if they are to “help” the federal government?

The Government of Pakistan’s moral support for the Kashmir cause is commendable, but on the international stage, it is insufficiently equipped and poorly trained to take on big tech giants. While politically-elected lawmakers have the right to espouse rhetoric, government functionaries need to be more pragmatic and come to terms with ground realities. In this context, by publicly exhibiting their lack of internal coordination and confusion, officials in Pakistan are inadvertently causing harm to the Kashmir cause in cyberspace.

This entire fiasco can be avoided if the “cyber awareness” of bureaucrats across the Government of Pakistan is prioritised. Similarly, case officers in FIA and PTA should be periodically subjected to international-standard legal, technical and diversity training. The federal cabinet will have to allocate more for its human resources instead of machines.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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