PTA to Officially Start Policing Social Media and Online Content: Report

After the Cabinet Committee for Disposal of Legislative Cases (CCLC) gave its approval for the newly drafted rules to counter the flow of illegal, blasphemous, obscene or defamatory content on social media, they have also been ratified by the federal cabinet as per media reports.

Pakistan Today reported that the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoIT&T), after consulting stakeholders concerned, had drafted “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020”, and forwarded these new rules to CCLC for approval.

As per the report, all service providers will now be bound under new rules to remove or block content on social media deemed ‘unlawful’. The government will now likely be able to control unbridled social media with the implementation of new rules.

Speaking to a media outlet, Nighat Dad, Founder of Digital Rights Foundation, had said about these drafted rules that “Citizen Protection (Online Harms Rules) are a serious affront on the rights of internet users in Pakistan as they further entrench the unconstitutional powers granted to regulatory authorities under Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA)… It has been the stance of civil society organisations since the beginning that Section 37 infringes on the right to freedom of expression and access to information of citizens as it provides expansive and vaguely defined powers to block and remove content from the internet”.

She elaborated, “the rules further entrench the powers by imposing obligations of social media companies to block content that violates vague criteria such as the “glory of Islam”, “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan”, “public order” and “decency and morality” within a maximum of 24 hours. Furthermore, the rules require social media companies to locate offices and servers within the territories of Pakistan, these obligations go against international human rights norms and expand the powers of Section 37 to establish even greater control over the internet”.

According to documents, under the new rules, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will be able to restrict or disrupt the flow or dissemination of any online content, and remove and block access to online content, which goes against the interest of Islam, integrity, security and defense of Pakistan, public order, public health, public safety, decency and morality. It would also remove or block content that constitutes as an offense under different sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), 1860, or of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP), 1898.

Any social media company or service provider would be obligated to publish the community guidelines for usage of any online system, and such guidelines should inform the user not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any online content that belongs to another person; to which one does not have any right; or content which is blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, pedophiliac; invasive of another’s privacy; negatively affects religious, cultural, ethical sensitivities of Pakistan; impersonates another person; threatens the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan; or causes incitement.

The service provider and social media company which has more than half a million Pakistani users in Pakistan or social media companies specially notified by the authority must subject to the provisions of the act, and register with the authority to establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address, preferably located in Islamabad. Both aforementioned acts must occur within nine months of the enforcement of these rules.

PTA will entertain complaints with regards to the unlawful online content which may be filed by any person or guardian wronged by online content, or by a ministry, division, attached department, subordinate office, provincial, local department or office, law enforcement agency or intelligence agency of the government, or a company owned or controlled by the government.

PTA will register the complaint while ensuring that the online content and the identity of the complainant is kept confidential if need be. Similarly, PTA will not disclose such online content and identity of the complainant to any person who is directly responsible for receiving and processing the complaints. A complaint will be decided by the authority within thirty days under Rule 5. PTA may pass any order in writing and record reasons for its decision for removal or blocking or issue directions to the concerned offender in accordance with the requirements of section 37(1) of the Act.

While passing orders, PTA will give twenty 24 hours’ notice to the concerned parties to comply with the directions for removal or blocking access to the online content and any other directions as may be issued in the order.

PTA may direct the service provider, social media company, owner of an information system, owner of internet website or web server and user to remove the online content complained of within six hours in emergency cases, and the authority will specify the reason for the emergency in writing.

“In case the service provider, social media company, owner of an information system, owner of internet website or web server and the user fails to remove or block access to the online content or to comply with the directions issued by the Authority under sub-rule (2) within the specified time, the Authority may initiate action against a service provider, social media company, owner of an information system, owner of internet website or web server and the user under the act,” said the documents.

Furthermore, the authority may direct the concerned parties to secure information including traffic data. The authority may seek expert opinion from any person wherever it deems appropriate during the processing of the complaint against online content.

It is pertinent to mention that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) has provided a complete framework for dealing with electronic crimes including removing or blocking of unlawful online content and powers of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority with respect to unlawful online content management in Section 37 of PECA, the documents revealed.

Under Section 37 of PECA, PTA is empowered to block or remove unlawful online content in the telecommunication sector with approval of the federal government and with the cooperation of law enforcement agencies. An inter-ministerial committee was constituted by the prime minister on 14th September 2017 for the purpose of steering the implementation of PECA. However, after the ratification of the Citizen Protection Rules, 2020 by the cabinet, the civil society and technology companies raised objections.

In pursuance of the premier’s directions in letter No. 21-ITM/DS(IA-III)/2020-meeting dated 26th February 2020, a committee was framed by the Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunication on 28th February 2020. The committee was directed to undertake extensive and broad-based consultation with all relevant stakeholders. After thorough deliberations, the chairman of PTA submitted a revised draft of rules, which were sent to the Ministry of Law and Justice for vetting.

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