10/23/2021

New Draft of Controversial Social Media Rules Introduced

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication has uploaded a new draft of the controversial social media rules to its website, named the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021. This move comes in the wake of several petitions filed by journalists and activists against the rules, which were originally introduced in 2020.

The new version of the rules states that The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020 and Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 have been repealed. The rules for online content regulation, which were framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, faced legal challenges in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) through petitions filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), journalist Amber Shamsi, and journalist Tanzeela Mazhar.

The option to provide feedback on the new draft is open until 11:00 am on June 28.

What are some of the changes?

The modified version makes small changes to the “corrected” version which was shared in November last year. The latest version states in the beginning that the rules are approved “in exercise of the powers conferred by sub-section (2) of sections 37 read with section 51 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.” 

This latest addition addresses the petition filed by PFUJ in December 2020, when the group alleged that the subject matter of the rules goes beyond the legal mandate given to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and IT Ministry and is not in conformity with Section 37(2) of PECA 2016, under which rules have to be enacted for the specific purpose of providing safeguards, transparency and effective oversight mechanism for exercise of powers under Section 37(1).

Additionally, the definition for “community guidelines” has been changed to exclude owners of any Information System, website and web server. However, social media companies and service providers are still included in the definition. 

Another change in definitions is that of the word “complainant,” which now also extends to “a Ministry, Division, attached department, sub-ordinate office, provincial or local, department or office, a law enforcement or intelligence agency of the Government, or a company owned or controlled by the Government.”

The definition of “social media or social network service” was also entirely changed to make it more broadly applicable. Earlier it included references to specific platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Reddit and Twitter.

In Chapter 2, Section 4(2),  “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan” has been changed to just “security of Pakistan,” which shall bear the same meaning as given under Article 260 of the Constitution. “Integrity and defence of Pakistan” has now been defined separately and applies to “the Online Content constitutes an act which is an offence under chapter VI of Pakistan Penal Code, (Act XLV of 1860).”

The latest draft of the social media rules under Section 6(2) also extends the time given to an entity for complying with an order before the online content in question is blocked by PTA to 48 hours from the previous 24 hours in normal circumstances. In case of emergency, the time frame was reduced to 12 hours from the previously ordered 6 hours. It also now adds, “Provided further that the Authority shall specify the reasons for the Emergency in writing.”

Backlash

The Attorney General (AG) of Pakistan Khalid Jawed Khan in March recommended to Prime Minister Imran Khan that further and broad-based consultations are required for the framing of comprehensive rules under the social media rules. This statement came after consultations undertaken by the AG with petitioners who filed petitions in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and some other parties who expressed interest in the Rules. A committee, chaired by Minister of Human Rights Shireen Mazari, was formed to review the rules.

At a consultative meeting attended by the AG, various journalists, activists, petitioners and their lawyers, Section 5 of the social media rules was criticized for allowing government departments and intelligence agencies to anonymously file complaints for the removal and blocking of online content, making journalists and human rights defenders vulnerable to their misuse. The lawyers further argued that the language of the relevant section, which violates the right to fair trial, should be rectified to at least inform the accused about the identity of the complainant. However, provisions to hide the identity of the complainant from the accused were retained in the new version of the rules in the event that revealing the identity “may result in proliferation of the Online Content or harming, harassing or defaming the Complainant, or invasive of the Complainant’s privacy or relates to the modesty of the Complainant.”

A complete timeline of the social media rules up until March 30 can be found here.

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