March 25, 2021 – The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has sent a registration form to social media companies to appoint a local representative and provide a local address, as prescribed under Rule 9(5) of the recently notified Removal and Blocking of Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules, 2020, also known as the Social Media Rules.sm_company_reg_form_16032021
Under the Rules, those companies listed as service providers and social media companies with more than half a million subscribers in Pakistan are obligated to appoint a local representative and set up an office in Islamabad in order for the government to quickly establish contact with the companies as and when required to take down online content.
However, analysis of the Rules by civil society organisations suggest that demanding registration of social media companies with PTA goes beyond the powers vested on PTA under the section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, which is the parent Act of the Rules. In addition, this authority has not been given to the PTA under the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act that laid the foundation of PTA.
The current version of the Rules were notified in November 2020, and have been subjected to an year-long criticism from technology industry, journalist community and civil society alike for their ability to stifle civil liberties of the citizens of Pakistan on the internet. The set of Rules were challenged in Islamabad High Court (IHC) in December 2020 through multiple petitions that requested the Court to declare section 37 unconstitutional and the Rules ultra vires.
The Court remarked that the Social Media Rules cannot limit constitutional rights of citizens, and while issuing notices to the Ministry of Law and PTA in January 2021, questioned the legality of the Rules and instructed further consultations with stakeholders before they are implemented. The Attorney General of Pakistan who was made party in the case held consultation with few stakeholders on orders of the IHC, assured that the Rules will not be implemented until a broad based consultation is held with all relevant stakeholders.
This new update of issuance of registration forms to service providers and social media companies contradicts the commitment of the Attorney General and the orders of IHC. The next hearing on the Rules where the IHC has requested a detailed report with consultations with stakeholders is set to be held on April 2.
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran