The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) has just published the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards), Rules 2020 on its website. Widely criticized by stakeholders such as internet service providers as well as digital rights activists, these new social media rules have stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the past 24 hours.
Formed by the PTA under Sub-section(2) of Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, the rules have come into force with immediate effect.
According to the rules, the PTA will block or restrict online content in the interest of
- The “glory of Islam” commits an act which is an offence under Chapter XV (relating to religion) of the Pakistan Penal Code
- The interest, security and defence of Pakistan, which also includes the dissemination of information that intimidates or harms the reputation of federal or provincial governments or any person holding public office…or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the federal or provincial governments
- Public order if an offence under chapter XIV (offences affecting public health, safety convenience, decency and morals) of the PPC or the online content contains any fake or false information that threatens public order, public health and public safety or the online content constitutes an act which could lead to the occasions described under Chapter XI (temporary orders in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger) of the Code of Criminal Procedure
- Decency and morality under sections 292 (sale of obscene books), 293 (sale of obscene objects to a young person), 294 (obscene acts and songs) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the PPC
Who can file complaints:
- Any person or the guardian of a minor who is aggrieved by online content
- A ministry, division, attached department, subordinate office, provincial or local department or office, law enforcement agency or intelligence agency of the government or a company owned or controlled by the government
- The PTA itself
The rules state that the PTA will keep the identity of complainants confidential if the sharing of it will result in harming, harassing or defaming them or invasive of their privacy or modesty.
Before passing any order, the opportunity of a hearing will be given, reads the rules.
Social media companies, service providers, owners of information systems or owners of websites have to remove any content within 24 hours of the PTA’s notice. In case of an “emergency”, they have six hours to remove the content.
“The authority while issuing directions for removal or blocking access to any online content may direct the service provider, social media company, owner of information system, owner of internet website or web server and user to secure such information including traffic data, as the case may be, for such period of time as the authority may deem appropriate,” according to the rules. The ambiguity in the last line, “For such a period of time as the authority may deem appropriate,” means the PTA could ostensibly request user data for an extended period of time.
“If the service provider, social media company, owner of information system, owner of internet website or web server and user fails to abide by the provision of these rules, the authority may issue directions for blocking the entire online system or any services provided by such service providers owned or managed by the said service providers or social media company.”
This means the PTA has the authority under these rules to block entire social media websites if platforms don’t remove “objectionable” content within 24, or in some cases six, hours.
They also want service providers and social media companies to publish “community guidelines” that users have to read before using the platform.
These guidelines will inform the user not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any online content that:
- Belongs to another person or to which the user does not have any right
- Is blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, pedophilic, invasive or another’s privacy
- Violates or affects religious, cultural, ethnical sensitivities of Pakistan
- Harms minors in any way
- Impersonates another person
- Threatens the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or public order or causes incitement to any offence under the act
Social media companies and service providers have also been told to deploy mechanisms to identify such content.
They cannot knowingly “host, display, upload, publish, transmit, update or share any online content and shall not allow the transmission, select the receiver of transmission, and select or modify the information contained in the transmission” either.
Service providers and social media companies with more than half a million users in Pakistan or on the list of service providers or social media companies compiled by the PTA from “time to time” will:
- Register with the PTA within nine months of these rules coming into force
- Establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address, preferably in Islamabad, within nine months
- Appoint a focal person based in Pakistan for coordination with the PTA to ensure compliance of its orders or directions and to receive any notices on behalf of the service provider or social media company in Pakistan within three months
- Subject to promulgation of the Data Protection Law, establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within 18 months to record and store data and online content within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy
- Provide to the investigation agency any data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or run by the respective service provider or social media company in decrypted, readable, comprehensible format or plain version, which may include subscriber information, traffic data, content data and any other information or data
- Publish the name of its grievance officer and contact details for complaints
- Deploy mechanisms to ensure prevention of uploading and live streaming through online systems in Pakistan of any online content, particularly regarding online content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, pornographic, incitement to violence and detrimental to national security.
In case they fail to abide by the act, rules or direction, after being given a notice or opportunity of showing cause, a penalty of up to Rs500 million will be imposed on social media companies or service providers.
When the PTA will not entertain applications:
- Complainant fails to give necessary information or documents or does not respond despite reminders or fails to attend hearings
- Subject matter is sub-judice before a court, tribunal or board on the date of presentation of the complaint or pending investigation before an investigation agency
- Complaint does not disclose cause of action to justify removing or blocking content
- Subject matter same as a complaint that has already been disposed of by the PTA, a court, or tribunal
- Facts are of the complaint are of such nature that in order to establish the correct position requires a detailed examination of both documentary and oral evidence and its assessment for which the proper forum is a court
- Complaint has been made by a person who is not an aggrieved person
- Complainant is anonymous or uses a pseudonym
‘It is a draconian law’
Unsurprisingly, digital rights activists have been alarmed by these new rules, largely because they believe that the government has pretty much ignored all the concerns of the stakeholders involved. Moreover, the government has simply given itself way too much power and influence in the social media space.
“It is a draconian law, there is too much government involvement in the affairs of social media,” said Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation.
Advocacy, research, and policy firm Bolo Bhi was also appalled at the new rules, and it took to Twitter to complain about it.
“They undermine right to speech online, impose broad content censorship rules, and threaten blocking social media platforms. They will gravely impact the internet as we know it in Pakistan,” the firm tweeted.
What do you think about the government’s controversial social media rules?