For a government which says it wants new investors to inject funds in the country, it is not doing itself any favours in the digital industry department. In fact, the government’s new move of framing the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020 (RBUOC),” under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA), might do irreversible damage to the country’s digital sector unless steps are not taken.

There are several objections to RBUOC. These rules were formulated with secrecy and without due negotiations or warning with either NGOs which work with the digital security and freedoms, or social media companies themselves. This is a disregard of the democratic process, as stakeholders of such an impactful decision, including the masses, whose opinion should have been considered, need to be consulted with.

Secondly, there is a credible argument that some provisions of the RBUOC violate freedom of speech and online freedoms. Problematic parts of the RBUOC include the power given to the PTA to decide what constitutes decent and moral content, a concept which has not been defined or interpreted by any body or judiciary previously, and whose meaning we have previously seen to be misused to include any arbitrary content which personally offends the regulator. Also problematic is that the rules appear to criminalise criticism of all state officials under the guise of “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan”. If interpreted strictly, this could disallow any criticisms of politicians in government, and thus effectively silence opposition.

These rules have been noted internationally as being “sweeping” and have gained notoriety. Instead of complying with the rules, international companies may find it in their interest to leave Pakistan entirely. RBUOC may have been formulated with good intentions to involve social media companies and increase their presence in Pakistan, but because of poor drafting and inept understanding of those in power, they are likely to have the opposite consequence. The government either needs to leave internet regulation alone or put those in its cabinet who actually understand the internet and can make it a safer and more commercially engaging marketplace.