October 20, 2020

Media reports submission of revised draft of social media regulation rules to Cabinet for approval

Islamabad, 6 Oct 2020: Multiple media outlets are reporting that the ministry of IT has submitted new rules to the Cabinet, which create the regulatory framework to bind service providers to remove or block access to select online content. While the new set of Rules is reported to be titled “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020”, the reported content of the said Rules makes it obvious that this is the revised draft of the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harms) Rules, 2020 (CP Rules), that were ‘suspended’ after local civil society, journalist groups and international corporations heavily criticised them. 

Reported revisions 

While the new Rules are not yet publicly available, media reports show that the many of the most criticised elements of the CP Rules have been retained in the new draft. 

Content to be blocked 

Media reports say that the Rules will empower PTA to remove and block access to “online content which goes against the interest of Islam, integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, public health, public safety, decency and morality. It would also remove or block content that constitutes an offence under different sections of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), 1860 or of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP), 1898”. 

Sadaf Khan, co-founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “This is a highly concerning development. Only the courts are empowered to convict anyone under the Pakistan Penal Code. These Rules appear to empower PTA to exercise judicial powers and make decisions about illegality of content under PPC without any judicial process.” She adds, “This is an extremely concerning development. No regulatory Authority should have the right or authority to exercise judicial powers, specially when these powers can directly affect the exercise of rights granted under Article 19 and 19A of the Constitution.” 

Localisation and penalisation of International corporations 

Reportedly, the Rules also make it mandatory for companies with over 500,000 users to register with Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and hold a local office. It is to be notes that The Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act, 1996, the parent legal instrument that established PTA, does not have any provision for registration of social media companies and is empowered only to deal with the telecommunication industry. 

The Rules also reportedly empower PTA to take action and penalise companies who fail to take actions directed by PTA within 6 to 24 hours. The Rules also mandate the international corporations to create and display  new Community Guidelines for consumers in Pakistan, that are in adherence with the local cultural, ethical and other values in Pakistan. 

Continued lack of transparency 

While detailed reports on the Rules have appeared in media, PTA and the Ministry is yet to publicly share the new draft of Rules. Various reporters contacted by Digital Rights Monitor, have confirmed that the new draft is not being made available to them. 

“The new Rules were to be created in consultation with local and global stakeholders. This continued secrecy over the new draft confirms what we feared all through the consultative process; that the consultations were merely symbolic,” says Sadaf, adding, “We urge the government to make the new draft public and open it up for meaningful consultation.” 

Reaction to reports of new Rules 

Civil society groups in Pakistan have expressed reservations on the new draft and expressed concerns about the continued secrecy and lack of transparency. Concerns regarding excessive blocking of content have also been raised. 

The Asia Internet Coalition, a body of fourteen technology companies including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon among others, has also sent a letter to the Prime Minister Imran Khan “outlining industry’s concerns about the lack of transparency on the consultation, an abbreviated consultation process, and strict local office requirements for online platforms.” The letter raises various concerns about the reported content of the Rules and the consultative procedure, and states that, “the Rules, if improperly formulated, would actively harm the business environment in Pakistan and its attractiveness as an investment destination for technology companies.”

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