October 10th, 2020
By Haider Kaleem
The federal cabinet has ratified ‘Removal and blocking of unlawful online content rules 2020 (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) to counter the flow of illegal, blasphemous, obscene or defamatory content on social media, however, digital rights activists boycotted the process, saying that the law would undermine fundamental rights of citizens.
In February these rules were notified and made public, however, protests followed and therefore Prime Minister Imran Khan suspended these rules. But human rights organization protested further saying Prime Minister Imran Khan cannot suspend these rules and they can only be de-notified by the cabinet itself. Because the government did not follow due process during the drafting of these rules, civil society organizations boycotted the consultation with the government.
However the government consulted digital media companies on the previous ‘Citizen Protection Rules (Against Online Harms) 2020’, and then the revised draft was submitted by the Federal Secretary on IT and Telecommunication, to the Cabinet Committee for Disposal of Legislative Causes on October 6.
Govt’s “consultation” was just an eyewash to show that stakeholder input is being taken, without actually taking it into account.
According to the director of Bolo Bhi, Usama Khilji, very little has changed in the draft of the social media rules, except the name of the rules. For him, the “consultation” was just an eyewash to show that stakeholder input is being taken, without actually taking it into account.
“The new rules will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech of all citizens of Pakistan, apart from being open to abuse by the authorities given the vague criteria of unlawful online content. Section 37 of PECA & these rules should not exist if we are to be a democracy that grants due rights to citizens” says Khilji.
He further stated that the clauses in PECA 2016 are already sufficient to protect citizens from the ills that the government is claiming these rules will protect citizens from. The state must resist authoritarian urges.
Vague rules will be used to censor
As per the new rules, social media companies or service providers are bound to publish the community guidelines for users 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.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will not restrict or disrupt the flow or dissemination of any online content, except the 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 an offense under different sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) or the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
As mentioned in the previous draft of the rules, popular social media companies and service providers will have to register with PTA and establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address, preferably located in Islamabad.
The revised draft also says that the PTA will entertain complaints with regards to the unlawful online content which may be filed by any private citizen 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.
According to rule five, the responsibility to keep the identity of the complainant confidential and complete the case within thirty days lies on the PTA.
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 after the 24 hours’ notice to the concerned parties to comply with the directions for removal or blocking access to the online content.
In cases of emergency, PTA has been empowered to direct the service provider, social media company, owner of an information system, owner of internet website or web server, and user to remove, block access to the online content complained of within six hours in emergency cases, following the reason for the emergency in writing to recipients.
In case of non-compliance, the Authority can initiate action against the recipient of the written request.
As per the new rules, the companies are now obligated to establish database server(s) in Pakistan within 18 months, to record and store data within Pakistan for citizen’s data privacy but they also create obligations for the provision of data, including subscriber information, traffic data, content data, and any other information or data is decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version if/when required for criminal investigations.
Minister of IT says freedom of expression won’t be compromised
Before these rules were notified, PTA’s 2018 Annual Report cited in a petition at IHC states that the authority has blocked 800,000 websites by end of 2018. As the authority, under sub-section 1 of Section 37 of the PECA 2016 was already empowered to block the websites with content against the glory of Islam, integrity, security, and defense of Pakistan, public order, morality or contemptuous but these terms or their limitations had not been defined.
Talking to voicepk.net, Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication, Syed Amin Ul Haq said the government will not allow the online spaces to be misused against the citizens in any form.
“I strongly believe in the freedom of expression as guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan and there can be and has been no compromise on press freedoms either,” said the minister.
Speaking about how the rules will proceed further, the minister admitted that if any terms are left undefined in the rules which can be misused as a tool to curb rights, they will be amended or redefined when required.
Using the idea of vulgarity as an example, he stated, “it is true that such terms are dependent on how one sees things, hence one’s standard of terms like vulgarity or cultural sensitivity can be different from another person”.
Pending personal data protection bill
A consultation draft of the bill titled Personal Data Protection Act, 2020 also exists and it is being introduced to govern the collection, processing, use, and disclosure of personal data and to establish and making provisions about offenses relating to a violation of the right to data privacy of individuals by collecting, obtaining or processing of personal data by any means.
Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication, Syed Amin Ul Haq believes that the primary purpose to ratify these rules is to curb the anti-state content, hate speech, and vulgarity.
To ensure that the new rules will not violate any fundamental rights, he shared that the human rights minister, Shireen Mazari was also present in the committee meeting chaired by the Chairman PTA, but he is not sure if the opposition parties were consulted as he was appointed as the IT minister in April 2020.
When the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules were introduced by the PTI government, chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told voicepk.net that their party will definitely oppose these regulations.
“We have always opposed censorship and all efforts to control freedom of speech. When the PECA 2016 rules were initially introduced, the PPP took a very clear stance in opposing the said legislation but at that time Mian Nawaz Sharif had the two-thirds majority and if we would have let them use that majority to pass this legislation, we anticipated that it would have been much worse than this, therefore the Pakistan Peoples Party added its amendments to the law and tried watering it down”, added Bhutto.
He further stated that in the way in which the current government had overlooked rules and procedures by bypassing the parliament had resulted in such draconian legislation that led social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and other companies to say that they will wrap-up their operations in Pakistan.
According to the PPP Chairman, the previous rules would have deprived the youth of different opportunities which in today’s time are intrinsically tied with the flow of information through the internet and social media.
“People will be deprived of job opportunities and other opportunities as well. Whatever steps this current government takes adversely affects not only our human rights and democratic rights but also our economic rights by curtailing access to economic opportunities”, he said.
He has not commented on the revised rules yet, but he vowed that the way in which the government wants to control vlogs and blogs is something his party will strongly oppose through its votes in the National Assembly and Senate or also approach the courts if required.
Banning of Tik Tok
PTA spokesperson told voicepk.net that the authority is not aware of the official development while the Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui, Federal Secretary on IT and Telecommunication endorsed ratification of rules but also confirmed that they have not been notified yet.
But the regulatory authority has still blocked TikTok on Friday for failing to filter out “immoral and indecent” content following complaints from different segments of the society on the video-sharing application.
The PTA also said it would review its ban, subject to a satisfactory mechanism by TikTok to moderate unlawful content.
The regulatory authority also wrote to a streaming platform Zee5 for the removal of a critically-acclaimed Pakistani series “Churails” after which the platform took it down for the Pakistani viewers amid complaints and risk of getting the whole platform banned.
Zee5 has now issued a statement addressing the unavailability of the series in Pakistan, saying the decision was purely in compliance with the directive the team received and the show is now back to the service.