Islamabad, 19 November 2018: Pakistan grabs the top slot among the list of countries where Facebook has censored and blocked content on the request of government. According to the Facebook’s latest transparency report, between January – June 2018, 2203 pieces of content were restricted by Facebook on the request of the Pakistani government.
The report also states that between January-June 2018, Facebook received 1233 requests from the government to access data. However, according to the transparency report, Facebook complied with only 58% of the data access requests.
Restrictions on online content
The blocking of 2203 pieces of content demonstrates that restrictions have increased manifolds this year. Last year for the period of Jan-June 2017, only 177 items were restricted. It jumped to 301 restrictions during July-December 2017.
Sharing the update on the nature of restrictions on content during this period, Facebook noted in its report: “We restricted access in Pakistan to items reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority as allegedly violating local laws prohibiting blasphemy, harassment, anti-judiciary content, and condemnation of the country’s independence. We also restricted access to 87 items in response to reports related to defamation.”
However, these restrictions do not essentially mean that the content is removed from the platform all together. Rather, the content may still be available for viewership in other countries even if it is blocked in Pakistan under the local laws. Facebook Transparency report emphasizes: “When we restrict content based on local law, we do so only in the country or region where it is alleged to be illegal.”
“It seems obvious that the famed cybercrime law, Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, is being put to use to censor and block access. While Facebook’s transparency report gives us a general idea about the scale of the problem, there is no actual transparency about the kind of content that has been blocked”, says Sadaf Khan, co founder/ director Media Matters for Democracy, “The government also has a responsibility to ensure transparency about these decisions, so that the citizens of Pakistan at least know how their constitutional right of freedom of expression and right to information is being regulated and restricted”.
These findings come in the aftermath of recent statements from the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in which he expressed Facebook’s intent to set up an independent commission to vet appeals against content removal.
Requests for data
Facebook also received Facebook received 1233 requests from the government to access data. Reflecting on these requests, the report notes: “Each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency and we may reject or require greater specificity on requests that appear overly broad or vague.”
While the data access requests have slightly plummeted as compared to July-December 2017 cycle (1320 requests), it was nevertheless higher as compared to the last year’s January-June 2017 cycle where 1050 requests were filed. It is interesting to note that Facebook’s compliance with requests have gone down. Last year, during January-June, Facebook complied with 63% of government’s request as opposed to 58% this year.
Requests for user account information preservation
Apart from that, during the same period, Facebook also received 430 requests from the government to preserve 580 user account information for January-June 2018 as opposed to 399 and 464 requests during Jan-Jun, 2017 and July-Dec., 2017 cycles respectively. Explaining what it means, the report states: “When we receive a preservation request, we will preserve a temporary snapshot of the relevant account information but will not disclose any of the preserved records unless and until we receive formal and valid legal process.”
Interestingly, the number of accounts preserved during Jan-Jun., 2017 against 399 requests was higher (619) as compared to the number of accounts preserved (580) during January-June 2018 against 430 requests.
Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.