Civil society members and digital rights groups have already boycotted the government’s consultations on amending the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 – well before they formally began. The issues that these groups, the general public and social media groups have against the proposed rules notwithstanding, the current problem is the “disingenuous” way in which the government is approaching the discussions as well.

The Cabinet has yet to withdraw the proposed rules, which means that the consultations themselves will be meaningless if the government just decides to hold the meetings in name without taking anything constructive from it. Paying lip service to the idea of consultations, only to do what you always intended to before the discussion serves absolutely no purpose.

The fact that the committee itself is composed entirely of the government’s own people is also inherently problematic. How is the ruling party planning to take the recommendations of stakeholders, if no stakeholders make it to the meeting table? Digital rights experts, members of the civil society sector, academics and representatives from local and multinational technology companies must be included in this process.

This is not an issue that will just blow over. The use of the internet is permeating every aspect of our society, and the government cannot stifle the freedom of expression and the right to privacy in the name of protecting users from online harm. The local and international backlash from this is not something that will just die down; international companies that bring millions in revenue to everyone from independent entrepreneurs to big businesses have already threatened to stop operations in Pakistan. The government needs to be inclusive, those it is seeking to protect must be allowed to weigh in on how they believe rules on the internet should be drafted. Real consensus is the only way the government can protect citizens and allow for the digital economy to bring prosperity in the coming years.