September, 30, 2021 – The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT) has submitted the updated draft of the Social Media Rules to Cabinet for review and approval in a meeting held on September 21.
According to sources privy to the developments in the Cabinet the Rules are yet to be approved by the Cabinet and the draft version, drafted after the court mandated multistakeholder consultation process, has been submitted for Cabinet’s review. According to documents shared by the source, the submission has been made to MoITT on instructions of the Prime Minister Office, which has asked MOITT on September 9 to submit a summary and draft response before the Federal Cabinet for consideration.
The MoITT had also consulted the Ministry of Law and Justice and Attorney General of Pakistan in preparation of a response to be submitted in Islamabad High Court (IHC).
Misleading reporting in media
There are misleading reports in the media about Cabinet’s approval on the amended Social Media Rules. According to documents seen by Digital Rights Monitor, the Ministry has submitted draft Rules to the Cabinet to seek approval, which has not been acquired yet.
In addition, media reports have also indicated addition of new sub-rules in the document that make it mandatory for social media companies to appoint representatives and set up offices in the country. However, these obligations for localisation of social media companies and their data are not new and have technically been in effect since the notification of the Rules in October 2020 (amended in November 2020). The latest draft of the Rules that is submitted in the Cabinet has not been made public yet and hence it cannot be determined what has changed in this version.
History of the Rules
The notified version of the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules that were drafted under section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, was first made public in February 2020 through an anonymous source, following a undemocratic legislative process completely lacking of stakeholder input. The Rules and the lack of transparency in drafting and notification of the Rules was heavily criticised by the civil society, technology sector and journalists community alike.
In August 2020, responding to a petition filed in Islamabad High Court (IHC, requesting the court to declare the Rules ultra vires, the Court issued notices to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and MoITT questioning the status of the Rules and the creation of a parallel body, that is the National Coordinator, with overbroad powers granted under the Rules. Multiple petitions were filed in the Court challenging the legality of the Rules.
Earlier, a committee was formed on the directions of PM Imran Khan who instructed the PTA and the Ministry to not enforce laws until a consultative process was initiated. The committee, chaired by the Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari, held consultative meetings with stakeholders to amend the Rules which were notified in October 2020 after the consultation process. Civil society, activists and internet users boycotted the consultations terming them “merely token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input.”
Media Matters for Democracy submitted comments, feedback and recommendations on the first version of the Rules to the Ministry with suggestions to amend the Rules after they are denotified from the Cabinet.
Following a petition filed in December 2020 in Islamabad High Court requesting it to declare section 37 of PECA unconstitutional and social media rules ultra vires, the Attorney General of Pakistan appeared in Court in January this year to address the concerns raised by the Court in earlier hearings and informed that the government was ready to consult all stakeholders to review the Rules. The AGP, on the directions of the IHC, held consultative meetings with the committee chaired by Shireen Mazari, inviting multiple stakeholders for comments and suggestions in February and submitted a summary to the Court in the hearing on February 26. The meeting was attended by the petitioners, their counsels, journalists and civil society representatives including Media Matters for Democracy.
In a hearing on April 2, the IHC directed the Committee to submit a report on the Social Media Rules after AGP who was representing the Government in the hearing told the Court that his office will provide support to the Committee in amending the Rules.
No new update has been made in the Islamabad High Court since, however, the recent developments indicate movement on the government level.
Civil society organisations and technology companies have previously raised concerns on the broad powers given to the authorities to control content on social media through these Rules that will directly hinder civil liberties in the country. When viewed in conjunction with the proposed Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB), these Rules paint a worrying picture of the risk to privacy of citizens’ data and freedom of expression.