Although the government has promised to ‘review’ the new rules, however rights activists believe it is highly unlikely if we keep the history of the country, in this regard. The clampdown on media has already reached to a new level with restricting reports, shutting down the programs, and job losses in media industry. Now, it seems, it is the turn of social media as the authorities want to restrict the freedom of expression, because it is against the ‘national interest’.
With every passing day, state’s grip against freedom of expression, media and now social media seems to get tighter. The new draconian social media law by the federal government is a clear attempt to control, what critics say, what they cannot. Under the name of national security, religious sentiments and ‘respect for institutions’, the government introduced a new law for digital media in November 2020.
The government has formed new rules titled “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020,” under the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 (PECA). The RBUOC has placed all internet service providers (ISPs) at par with social media companies, while all the requirements for social media platform have been imposed to ISPs as well. In short, the new rules are applied to any social media company operating in Pakistan.
Under the new rules, any social media user, social media company, service provider, website owner or information system cannot publish, host, display, change, transmit, update or share any content that belongs to someone else, is blasphemous, pedophilic, pornographic, is against the religious, cultural, ethnical sensitivities and beliefs, harms minors, or threatens the security, integrity of Pakistan’s defense or public order. Critics argue that the new rules cover almost every aspect of life — hence, often quashing personal freedoms. The vagueness of the rules is its biggest problem according to analysts.
Reacting to the new rules, Asad Baig from Media Matters for Democracy said, “Everything in these new rules is vague, as the government has tried to bring something parallel to PECA, to apply a new legal framework.”
Meanwhile, digital rights activist Nighat Dad said that the new regulations go against its parent act, PECA. “First, it bypasses judicial authority and now Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) doesn’t need a warrant, rather it can contact the social media companies directly for the data of a user. Secondly, it includes intimidation, as any content ‘harming the reputation’ of federal/provincial government, public office holder will be questioned. This is against Article 19, which deals with freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, the strongest reaction came from the internet companies, including international giants. The companies specifically opposed the government’s demand to implement these new rules above their own global community guidelines. Furthermore, the companies are required to open their office in Pakistan, appoint a local representative, and establish database server in the country. Furthermore, they have to hand over the data to FIA in decrypted and readable form. The companies are also bound to comply with censor orders of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and have to provide data related to users. In case of failure to do so, they would face complete blocking in the country, along with Rs 500 million fine.
As a result, these tech giants, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, threatened to leave Pakistan, if these social media rules stay. In a statement, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) expressed its alarm over the new laws, as well as government’s vague process, through which these rules have been developed. In a statement, AIC said: “The rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.”
It is pertinent to mention that the rules, applied in November 2020, were the continuation of same policy imposed in January 2020. That policy/rules also faced same backlash from the stakeholders and Prime Minister Imran Khan promised a ‘consultation’ with the companies, which never happened though and government.
Furthermore, the new rules have been challenged in Islamabad High Court (IHC), where the hearing is underway. During the hearing, Attorney General of Pakistan informed the court that “the government will review the rules and it will be held after consultation with relevant stakeholders and petitioners.” The IHC has given the government a 30-day deadline to present a report on framing social media after consulting with stakeholders. The court asked AGP to submit the report on April 2.