The government has shown willingness to review the controversial “Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”, but wants foreign social media giants to follow a uniform standard for blocking accounts, and show respect to the country’s laws and religious sentiments of the people.
This was stated by Amir Azeem Bajwa, chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and convener of the consultation committee on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, while addressing a consultative meeting with various stakeholders, here on Thursday.
The government has opened formal broad-based consultation on the controversial rules, following massive backlash from various segments of society, foreign social media companies as well as the United States.
“We are ready to review the rules and power extended through it, if found to be in confrontation with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, the Constitution or other laws of the land,” the PTA chairman added.
Bajwa said that the government had neither any intention of wrongdoing nor had designed the rules to restrict freedom of expression or hurt the fundamental rights of anyone.
“No doubt there is a greater challenge of fake news, defamation, blasphemy, and pornography,” said the PTA chairman, adding that the rules were framed and would be further reviewed if deemed necessary to ensure prevention of online content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence, and national security.
Responding to a question, Bajwa said that they wanted engagement with foreign social companies such as Twitter, Facebook, etc, and a mechanism in place to have an obligation on Pakistan as well as on foreign social media companies to understand their compulsions.
“Pakistan is a big commercial market for foreign companies, and they are getting huge money, but they neither pay taxes to the government nor are bound to cater to country’s requirements with respect to controlling cyber crimes,” he added.
When Bajwa was asked about establishing database servers to record and store data and online content as per the controversial rules and the threats to the privacy of citizens, he admitted that there was a dire need for data protection law currently missing in the country.
The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication has drafted a data protection bill and sought feedback from stakeholders by June 15, 2020.
The PTA chairman said that there was no intention behind the rules to harass or suppress freedom of speech and that was why the consultation process was initiated to take feedback from all stakeholders and come up with a refined version.
“We are open to take any suggestions, proposals and feedback and incorporate them in the final version of the rules.
The PTA chairman stated that they were strong proponent of “Digital Pakistan” and freedom of expression over the internet.
“We are fully cognizant of the critical role of internet and social media in promoting digital economy and freedom of expression,” he added.
He also said that the PTA was in favour of signing Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the United States of America (USA), which allows exchange of evidence and information in cyber crimes, but the Interior Ministry — another major stakeholder was reviewing the pros and cons of the treaty.
Approved by the federal cabinet on January 28, 2020, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication notified the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, to ensure prevention of online content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence, and national security.
However, after facing severe criticism, the government suspended the rules and decided to hold consultation with all stakeholders.