In its latest transparency report published for the July-December 2018 period, Facebook revealed that Pakistan is second highest in the list of countries to have content restricted on the website as a result of adhering to local law.

With 4174 content restrictions in the six-month period – with an increase of 1944 restrictions compared to the period of January-June 2018 – the report indicates that this content was reported by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and was removed for not adhering to local laws prohibiting “blasphemy, anti-judiciary content, defamation, and condemnation of the country’s independence”.

While clamping down on hate speech and blasphemous content on social media websites is important, perhaps the government can replicate Facebook’s attempts to be transparent and provide a report on the nature of the content it reported, with justifications for why it did so. Considering that platforms such as Facebook and twitter do not possess the requisite contextual understanding of local laws and norms, the government should bring the public in the loop with regards to objectionable content and why it is deemed to be as such. The state is well within its rights to curtail the freedom of speech if others’ rights are being subverted or the state’s sovereignty is questioned, however, it must also justify when it is doing so, alongside having a clear criteria for such instances in order to ensure that this power is not abused. In many cases, the state and platforms working together to remove hate speech or blasphemy online is needed, but Pakistan also has a history of policing its citizens too much and this must not be allowed to happen.

We can see this on platforms such as Facebook and twitter regularly; for instance, in the case of the latter, many civil society activists from Pakistan have received emails from the platform about specific tweets that might be in violation of Pakistani laws, even though on many occasions, these posts are not breaking any laws, but questioning unnecessary state action or high-handedness.

Dissent and disagreement with the government’s narrative should not be tantamount to breaking local law (which it isn’t) and by treating it as such platforms are treading a dangerous line between becoming content-hosting websites to actual moderators and controllers of content. In a time when contrasting narratives can make or break governments and misinformation is rife, giving this much power to platforms is not wise, considering that the profit-driven model is often completely at odds with the protection of a state and more importantly, its citizens.