November 20th, 2020 

By Rehan Piracha 


LAHORE

: In its reaction to recently notified social media rules, a coalition of big technology firms has warned that the expanded powers given to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority allowed the authority to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression, adding that the platforms may not be able to provide services to users in Pakistan.

On November 18, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications notified the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020. Under the social media rules service providers will be bound to remove or block access to select online content following complaints lodged with Pakistan Telecommunication Authority over illegal, blasphemous, obscene or defamatory content.

“It’s chilling to see the PTA’s powers expanded, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression,” said Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a joint forum of social media platforms, in a statement. Under the social media rules, a service provider or social media company could face a fine up to Rs 500 million rupees for non-compliance. A platform has to act within 24 hours or, in case of an emergency, six hours to remove content. The rules also empower the telecom authority to block an entire online system. Any platform that has more than half a million users in the country will have to register with the PTA within nine months and establish a permanent office and database servers in the country within 18 months.

The government has rejected requests from social media companies and digital rights activists for consultation over the social media rules approved initially by the federal cabinet in February. The AIC said coalition members were alarmed by the scope of  the new law targeting internet companies, as well as the government’s opaque process by which these rules were developed, adding that the consultation that was announced in February never occurred. “The consultation never occurred,” said Jeff Paine, the AIC managing director. “The draconian data localisation requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world,” the AIC said in a statement.

Big tech threaten pullout from Pakistan

“The social media rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” the AIC said. If Pakistan wants to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realise its goal of digital transformation, the coalition urged the federal government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm.

Tech firms don’t respond to legal requirements, says PTA

PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran told Reuters the rules were meant for better coordination with foreign-based social media companies, which usually “don’t respond to legal requirements”.

Wake-up call for government, says digital rights activists

On the other hand digital rights activists have strongly condemned the implementation of the social media rules saying the PTA has been given unfettered powers.  “The expansion of these powers is just horrendous,” said Nighat Dad, Founder of Digital Rights Foundation. She said the rules were 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).

Responding to the AIC statement, Sadaf Khan, Co-Founder Media Matters for Democracy, said the federal government should take the AIC’s concerns very seriously as the coalition comprises tech giants who literally shape the Internet. “If companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook pull out of Pakistan, the impact on our tech sector and our economy would be tremendous,” she said. It is also alarming and disappointing that a coalition of private entities has to remind the government that the Rules created by them are against all international principles of safeguarding freedom of expression, she added. “I would urge the government to stop taking this regressive and draconian approach that will only result in isolation of Pakistan in the global digital climate and create serious harm to our growth and economy,” Khan said.

Usama Khilji, Executive Director of Bolo Bhi, said the AIC statement should serve as a wake-up call to the PTA and the federal government. He said the government was controlling narratives on social media by trying to get private companies to do censorship for it, effectively undermining freedom of expression and privacy rights of citizens. Khilji said he expected a showdown between the government and technology firms in coming months over establishment of local offices and local databases under the social media rules. “This is extremely detrimental to Pakistan’s place in the international arena, as well as to fundamental democratic rights of citizens,” Khilji said.

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