Pakistani Govt To Use E-Safety Bill As Tool To Suppress Free Speech: Report 

Government should withdraw the E-Safety Bill from consideration and begin with a fresh strategy that prioritizes respect for the Constitution and international human rights laws.

Pakistani Govt To Use E-Safety Bill As Tool To Suppress Free Speech: Report 

The Pakistani government will use the E-Safety Bill as a tool to suppress free speech and censor online content using ‘online safety’ as an excuse, reported “Bolo Bhi," a civil society organization, in its recent study.

In a report, several serious concerns have been raised by drawing comparisons between Pakistan's E-Safety Bill and online safety legislation in other countries.

On July 26, 2022, the federal cabinet provided approval in principle to the E-Safety Bill 2023, formally known as "an act to provide for fostering and promoting safe online social network platforms.”

The report highlighted numerous flaws in the Bill including its “one-size-fits-all” approach to regulating online platforms that have little in common, its registration requirement, the lack of clarity in the obligations it poses on social Network platforms (SNP), the risk that the law’s vague provisions will be interpreted in an overbroad manner, and the reaction it may induce from foreign companies, who may simply stop serving customers in Pakistan in view of the onerous obligations it imposes.

Each of these issues implicates human rights considerations, such as the protection of freedom of expression and the right to information, as enshrined in Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The report highlights how the bill's inadequacies, particularly in its lack of precision and clear definitions, undermine its ability to achieve the intended purpose of safeguarding online spaces and maintaining an environment that protects freedom of expression and the rights of the individual using these spaces.

The study emphasized that countries all over the world, from Australia to the United Kingdom, are facing difficulties in determining how to regulate online content while respecting the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information.

One Bill To Regulate Multiple Platforms

Unlike the Pakistani E-Safety Bill, the Australian Online Safety Act 2021 treats different kinds of online platforms differently. For example, "social media services," "designated internet services," "search engine services," "app distribution services," and "hosting services” are all separate categories recognized by the law and subject to differential obligations.

Fallacious Registration Mechanism

In order to operate in Pakistan, the E-Safety Bill subjects platforms to a registration obligation. This requirement raises concerns about the government's increased power to control content, potentially using it as a tool to dictate what information is accessible to the public. This immense regulatory power over social networking platforms jeopardizes the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and the right to information. While international law does not explicitly prohibit a registration obligation on digital platforms, it sets a standard that states must follow to ensure such a requirement is legitimate.

Vagueness Of Bill’s Provisions

The proposed Pakistani E-Safety Bill, ostensibly introduced to safeguard against ‘objectionable content,’ raises significant concerns regarding its potential impact on the bedrock of democratic societies: freedom of expression. Its provisions, rather than offering clarity, leave ample room for subjective interpretation. The vagueness of the bill's provisions exposes a critical flaw in its structure and opens the door to potential misuse and arbitrary suppression of dissenting voices. If passed in its current form, this bill poses a genuine threat to the very essence of democratic discourse in Pakistan.

Broad Powers For Enforcement Agency

The E-Safety Bill provides its enforcement agency, the E-Safety Authority, with broad powers to regulate social Network platforms. These powers include the authorization to access communication devices if it reasonably suspects contravention of the bill, conduct inspections of premises, and summon people for inquiry at its discretion.

Probability Of Foreign Cos Halting Services In Pakistan

The numerous issues found within the E-Safety Bill increase the likelihood that foreign corporations will refuse to establish and maintain a presence in Pakistan. For example, the E-Safety Bill holds all directors, partners, and employees of a corporation operating a social networking platform personally liable for any noncompliance with the provisions of the bill. It is easy to imagine that many foreign corporations will not agree to operate under this type of liability because of the risk of arrest and punishment of their individual employees in Pakistan.

The Pakistani government should withdraw the E-Safety Bill from consideration and start with a new approach that puts respect for the Constitution and international human rights law front and center, the report suggested.