In the shadow of the corona virus pandemic and hardly noticed by international observers, the government of Pakistan is attempting to establish a sweeping state-oversight over the social media sector (CPJ, 2020, February 13). In order to do so, Islamabad envisaged a set of new regulations called the ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’ [later referred to as rules or regulations] which would have far reaching impacts on the ways in which social media companies can operate in the country (Shah & Purnell, 2020, February 13). This is gaining momentum since the cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan approved ‘secretly’ the respective regulations without parliamentary debate or prior consultation with other stakeholders outside the government (CPJ, 2020, February 13), for example from the digital economy or civil society groups.
Concretely, the envisaged regulations make it mandatory for (international) social media firms to immediately remove any material deemed undesirable by the country’s authorities and provide data about the social media accounts of Pakistani citizens to the authorities whenever asked (Rehman, 2020, March 11). Companies will also be bound to establish permanent physical offices (within three months and regardless of the company’s size) and their data centres within Pakistan as well as open offices along with focal persons in Islamabad (Rehman, 2020, March 11). Furthermore, the rules would provide for ‘the establishment of the office of National Coordinator (NC)’ entrusted with ‘unprecedented censorship powers’ (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29). The creation of the NC post indicates not only a clear attempt by the government ‘to gain strict controls over digital and online narratives’ but also ‘to centralise power’, and as such constitutes a further truncation of the ‘democratic and political progress’ in Pakistan. (MMfD, 2020, February 12). Companies and platforms not complying with the regulations could be blocked online and fined with up to 500 million rupees/$3.24 million (RFE/RL, 2020, February 14).
According to the official rhetoric, the rules are aiming at ‘curbing harmful online content, such as hate speech, harassment, and misinformation’ (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29). However, regarding critics, the planned online regulationswould stifle free speech, constitute a severe threat for the freedom of expression, and present a clear attempt to impose political control over the internet in general and social media companies in particular (Shah & Purnell, 2020, February 13; Karanicolas, 2020, February 29). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan declared that the regulations would gag social media in the country (The News International, 2020, February 15). According to Jeff Paine, Managing Director of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), ‘these rules jeopardize the personal safety and privacy of citizens, and undermine free expression’ (AIC, 2020, February 13). Media Matters for Democracy states, that the laws are ‘dictatorial’ (MMfD, 2020, February 12) and Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation (DSF) commented that these ruleswould give the authorities unflinching power to stifle social media (Chabba, 2020, February 24; Rehman, 2020, March 11).
If enforced, no other country would have such coercive specifications intended to govern online content. Here, one must consider the following further points:
(1) Pakistan already possesses an extensive legislative framework impacting freedom of speech and expression on the internet (Khan, 2018), namely the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. However, the planned rules, which were promulgated under the two before-mentioned laws (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29), are going far ‘beyond the scope of implementation’ of its ‘parents legislations’ in granting additional power to the authorities (MMfD, 2020, February 12).
(2) The media sector is the last bastion of freedom of speech in Pakistan, still remaining out of access for the country’s authorities and its repressive measures. Foreign and social media ‘have been two areas that continued to carry criticism of the government and the military’ leading ‘often to the frustration of the authorities’ (Shah & Purnell, 2020, February 13). As such, the rules aim to undermine this uncensored flow of information.
(3) It is crucial to highlight that social media companies would also be obliged to ‘take down certain posts by Pakistanis based abroad’ – were a number of vocal critics of the country’s establishment are based (Shah & Purnell, 2020, February 13). As such, the regulations are target free cross-border data flows (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29).
(4) The rules are not only intrusive and undemocratic but also impractical and ‘unresponsive to the global digital environment’ (MMfD, 2020, February 12) and would undermine the country’s vision to build-up a digital economy as enshrined in the ‘Digital Pakistan Policy’. More concretely, the requirements of the regulations would create a tremendous amount of costs and challenges (not only regarding compliance-related issues within Pakistan but also in their home countries). A remarkable example is the need for the establishment of an international, common data protection standard. However, the fact that Pakistan lacks robust user privacy protections, combined with the demand of the new data localization requirements as it is currently enshrined in the rules, will most likely force social media companies to pull out their operations from the country (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29).
(5) The potential pull-out or ban (in case of incompliance with the rules) of foreign (foremost US-based) social media companies from Pakistan would create a severe communication gap and an existential threat for the country’s emerging digital economy. In this context, there is a severe threat that the appearing vacuum in online services will be filled by China (with the blessing of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaderships), who already massively expanded its influence within the country’s traditional media sector (Wolf, 2020, May 19). Here, one should expect that Beijing, who excluded western social media companies from its domestic market and promoted Chinese, state-controlled online services such as WeChat, will be highly interested in exporting its model of a ‘walled off Internet’ (Dorsey, 2020, February 17) to Pakistan.
Considering Pakistan’s long record of punishing political and social dissent under the rationale of protecting national interests, especially in the wake of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) implementation (Wolf, 2019), it does not come by surprise that the drafted ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’ sparked massive criticisms among Pakistan’s human rights organisations and other entities concerned about online freedoms and rights. In order to address concerns, Islamabad temporarily suspended (Jahangir, 2020, March 3) the enactment of the rules and established a committee (headed by the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority/PTA, a retired Major General of the Pakistani Army) responsible to initiate a ‘broad-based consultation with stakeholders’, understood as relevant segments of civil society and technology companies. However, instead of being ‘inclusive’, ‘transparent’, and ‘constructive’ as announced by the authorities, the way the still (during time of writing) ongoing consultative mechanism is being conducted is perceived as an attempt to ‘deflect criticism’ and not as a ‘genuine exercise to seek input’ (Jahangir, 2020, March 3). According to observers, it appears that the government is not interested in any criticism or constructive feedback, especially not in the form of comments from abroad which were excluded a priori in a relevant survey.
Conclusion – Pakistan will violate its GSP+ compliance
Currently, it appears that one should not expect any substantial revision of the already notified rules. In consequence, the regulations are not only ‘deemed to violate Pakistani law’ but are also obviously not in compliance with international legal standards (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29). More concretely, the rules impact online speech and expression and as such they must comply with the standards spelled out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Pakistan. However, the rules will determine a breach of the ICCPR. For example, the unchecked authority granted to the NC and PTA is a clear gross violation of international standards (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29). This is gaining significance since this compliance is a relevant condition of the country’s eligibility for the granting of certain trade preferences (Generalised Scheme of Preferences /GSP+) by the European Union (EU). Against this backdrop, there is an urgent need by the respective EU bodies to monitor closely these developments and consider them in its next evaluation process (mid-term review, SADF, 2017, November 6) regarding Pakistan’s GSP+ compliance.
HRCP rejects gagging of social media. (2020, February 15). The News International.
Pakistani Cabinet Passes Controversial Social-Media Rules. (2020, February 14). Gandhara (RFE/RL).
AIC (2020, February 15). Letter to His Excellency Mr Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan. Asia Internet Coalition (AIC)
AIC (2020, February 13). Statement from Jeff Paine, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) on Pakistan’s Citizens Protection (Rules Against Online Harm) 2020.
Chabba, S. (2020, February 24). Pakistan’s new internet laws tighten control over social media. Deutsche Welle.
CPJ (2020, February 13). Pakistan government secretly passes strict social media regulations. New York: Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Dorsey, J. M. (2020, February 17). Pakistan puts press freedom at the core of struggle for new world order. The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
Jahangir, R. (2020, March 3). Implementation of online rules suspended, says PTA. Dawn.
Karanicolas, M. (2020; February 29). Newly Published Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules are a Disaster for Freedom of Expression in Pakistan
Khan, E. A. (2018). The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016: An Analysis. LUMS Law Journal. Legislative Reviews. Volume 5.
MMfD (2020, February 12). Public Statement, Condemning Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. Islamabad: Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD)
Rehman, A. (2020, March 11). Pakistan’s Government and Military Are Crushing Dissent on Social Media. The Diplomat.
SADF (2017, November 6). GSP, the mid-term review and Pakistan: The need to recalibrate. SADF Policy Brief, No 6. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).
Shah, S., & Purnell, N. (2020, February 13). Pakistan Approves Broad New Restrictions Over Social Media. The Wall Street Journal.
Spindle, B. (2019, November 2). Artists and Activists See Tighter Controls on Expression in Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal.
Wolf, S. O. (2020, May 19). China’s capture of Pakistan’s media sector and the complicity of the establishment. SADF Comment, No. 186. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).
 ‘Social Media’ is understood by the Government of Pakistan as ‘any social media application or service or communication channel dedicated to community based input, interaction, content, sub content sharing and collaboration, and includes Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Youtube, Dailymotion, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Reddit, TikTok and any other such application and service’. ‘Social Media Company’ means an entity that owns or runs or manages Online Systems.
 This would make it impossible for smaller start-ups to enter the Pakistani market (Karanicolas, 2020, February 29).
 The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) is an industry consortium of several technology companies – including Facebook, Twitter and Google among others – that promotes the understanding and resolution of internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region.