Age of social media
IMPASSIONED and often irreverent, there is no denying that social media users have changed the dynamics of public debate in Pakistan, and elevated issues that tend to fall by the wayside. Equally true, with this growing ‘people power’, is that the state has felt its authority threatened and sought to curb the extent to which citizens can practice freedom of expression online. Time and again, the PTA itself has admitted the futility and costliness of attempting to enforce severe internet restrictions. Last week, PTA chairperson Syed Ismail Shah told a parliamentary committee that the regulatory body has no jurisdiction over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. He also aptly identified where the responsibility for the effective use of social media lies — with society itself.
This newspaper has repeatedly raised concerns over the broad, vague language of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 — including Section 34, which affords the PTA sweeping powers to “remove and block” any information it deems improper on virtually any pretext. The PTA appears to understand that this is neither possible given the distributed nature of the internet, nor is it appropriate to enforce a regulation that has no mandate among the general public. Barring obvious criminal offences that do material harm to individuals and the state — harassment, identity theft, money laundering, militant activities, etc — self-regulation is the only form of moderation that can work online. This may not be as neat a prescription as the state desires, but it ought to be recalled how every attempt to codify moral policing in this country’s history has only further eroded the relationship between the people and their government, and harmed the most vulnerable segments of society — the poor, women and minorities. For better or worse, social media mirrors society. To some extent, it is a truer reflection — it provides an equal platform to voices traditionally excluded from homogeneous narratives of who we are and what we represent. This diversity cannot be denied, nor should it be prohibited.