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Experts question whether all types of digital content can be regulated using a single regulatory framework

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Numerous media professionals and digital rights advocacy groups have questioned whether a singular regulatory framework is an effective way of regulating the multitude of platforms of digital content on the internet in this day and age, here the other day.

Pakistan’s premier public institution Quaid-i-Azam University and Bower Group Asia- a strategic advisory firm that specializes in the Asia-Pacific, teamed up to host a webinar, titled “Does One Size Fit All? – Regulating content in the digital age Industry Best Practices from around the world.”

Aniq Zafar, Senior Asvisor BGA, said that the question that participants needed to explore was that given the numerous types of digital content on the internet today, can we have a unified way of regulating all content, or rather we need to develop a more sophisticated and agile way of dealing with content.

Can we really treat User Generated Content (UGC) such as a Facebook or a TikTok post, in the same way we regulate Online Curated Content on video-on-demand services like Hulu and Amazon Prime? The key distinction made by the experts was that UGC has lower level of content oversight, while Online Curated Content typically goes through an extensive production and editorial review process. Experts were of the opinion that the government will be better served if regulations were able to draw distinction in the different types of content platforms on the internet today.

Speaking at the event, Hamad Farouk from Pakistan Telecommunications Authority highlighted that while PTA has developed the technical capability to block unsecure website, the authority does not have the capability to block particular links or single piece of multimedia content on these pages. To effectively block unlawful content according to Pakistan’s laws such as sectarian hate speech or blasphemous content, PTA has to work with digital media platforms, who should develop more effective mechanisms for content moderation. Khair ur Rehman from Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority highlighted that a consultation draft on regulating web tv was presented and after concerns expressed about freedom of expression in the standing committee on human rights, it was put on hold, until a consensus can be reached with the relevant stakeholders. He said that PEMRA continues to engage with international stakeholders such as Amazon Prime and Netflix but local stakeholders are concerned about the burdens such regulations might place on them.

While the regulatory bodies’ efforts to come up with nuanced regulations was appreciated, journalists and advocacy groups expressed their concerns about the current and proposed regulations in the country. Veteran journalist Amber Shamsi pointed out the Pakistan needs regulatory frameworks that are well thought out and adopted with extensive stakeholder’s cosultation. Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy highlighted that there is a lack of understanding in the draft laws on how industries differ from individuals. She said that it doesn’t make sense to regulate OTT and UGC all in the same way and regulations need to be sensitive to the basic principles of content regulation which are legitimacy, proportionality and legality. “Convergence is the need of the future — eventually there will need to be a single regulator — but nowhere in the world have different mediums been regulated in a single way. Convergence should not mean regulating individuals and companies in the same way.”

Providing the international perspective, Celeste Campbell-Pitt from Asia Video Industry Association (AVIA) told the audience that across the region difference regulators in Asia are leaning toward a light touch, meaning soft regulation. In that regard, AVIA has prepared a regulatory draft that sees safety as the most important component. “Consumer control of content is important. Service providers should also try not to carry prohibited content (pornography, terrorism, etc.). A notification system that informs a regulator about an OCC provider’s presence in market, rather than a formal licensing requirement, will be a first step in communication.” Jelalian Esperanza representing the US Pakistan Business Council pointed out that digital mediums were expanding rapidly in Pakistan, and this was an opportunity for international companies to invest in Pakistan, she however cautioned that It was essential for Pakistan to create a regulatory environment that facilitates full exploitation of the economic potential of the industry.