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IT ministry notifies amended controversial social media rules – Pakistan

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication on Thursday notified the amended social media rules that stakeholders and digital rights activists have strongly criticised.

The rules, titled the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021”, have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016.

The federal cabinet had last month approved amendments to the digital media rules introduced last year.

Key amendments to social media rules

    Social media companies will have to register with PTA within three months
    Social media outlets will be required to establish an office in Pakistan “as and when feasible” — instead of nine months as required previously
    PTA will give 48 hours, instead of 24 hours previously, to a social media company for removing or blocking access to online content

In a statement, IT and Telecom Minister Aminul Haque said under the rules, social media companies would have to abide by Pakistani laws and the rights of social media users.

“Under the amended rules, Pakistani users will have the full right to freedom of expression under Article 19 [of the Constitution],” he said, adding that the rules would play an important role in facilitating contact between Pakistani netizens and social media companies.

He said there would be a ban on the live streaming of extremist, terrorist, hateful, obscene and violent content, and “social media companies will be liable to remove content against Pakistan’s honour and well-being”.

As per the rules, the propagation of “immoral and obscene content” will also be a punishable offence, Haque said.

Moreover, social media companies and service providers will be required to devise community guidelines in order to inform users about uploading content.

“No negative content concerning any individual will be uploaded,” Haque revealed, adding that uploading material about someone’s private life would also be banned.

Other things banned under the revised rules include “content against Pakistan’s cultural and moral trends” as well as content that could “destroy” the morals and harm the mental and physical development of children.

The minister said the rules would apply to all social media outlets including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Google. He added that after the issuance of the notification, the social media companies would be required to set up their offices in Pakistan “as soon as possible”.

According to the amended rules’ draft, seen by Dawn.com, social media companies would have to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months of the law coming into force.

They would also have to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same time-frame. These officers would have to address complaints within seven working days.

The rules also direct social media companies to establish an office in Pakistan, preferably located in Islamabad, upon PTA’s directions “as and when feasible”. Previously, the rules required the companies to set up their offices within nine months.

Moreover, the PTA would give 48 hours, instead of 24 hours previously, to the service provider or social media company for removing or blocking access to online content.

The PTA may initiate proceedings if the service provider or social media company fails to remove or block access to content or comply with PTA’s directions within the specified time. This includes sending a notice seeking a written explanation for the non-compliance within 48 hours.

If the service provider fails to respond to the notice, the PTA may degrade the services of such service providers for a period of time.

Under the rules, the PTA has also been authorised to block or issue directions for blocking the entire online information system or impose a penalty of up to Rs500 million.

Severe backlash

The social media rules, which were approved in November 2020, had faced severe backlash from digital rights activists, the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK) and the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC).

Tech companies had also threatened to discontinue their services in Pakistan if the rules were not amended, saying the regulations would make it difficult for them to continue their operations.

The rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). During one of the hearings on the petition, the attorney general had assured the IHC that the government was ready to review the rules.

Read: Draconian internet rules

In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan constituted an inter-ministerial committee to review the controversial social media rules.

The committee prepared the rules by August and they were passed by the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases on Sept 23.

However, internet companies have criticised the amended version as well, noting that the most problematic provisions remain unchanged in the latest draft that they say has in fact “regressed” in comparison with previous versions.

“The Asia Internet Coalition and its member companies are disappointed with the proposed revisions,” AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine had earlier told Dawn.

“Despite repeated feedback from industry over several months, the draft rules still include a number of problematic provisions — such as data localisation and local presence requirements — that undermine the country’s digital growth and transformation agenda,” he had said.

Reference