(Mar. 3, 2020) On January 21, 2020, the federal government of Pakistan issued through a notification the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, made in accordance with the Rules’ two parent acts, the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. These Acts appear to be aimed at “exercising greater control” over digital content produced by Pakistani citizens, particularly on social media. Rule 3 in chapter II of the Rules establishes an Office of the National Coordinator appointed by the minister of information technology and telecommunication. The functions and responsibilities of the national coordinator include coordinating efforts of stakeholders for the performance of functions relating to regulation of online systems, advising the federal or provincial governments, issuing instructions to government departments and agencies, and engaging with social media companies on behalf of the federal government.
Chapter III of the Rules includes the obligations of social media companies and special measures. Rule 4(1) enumerates the following obligation of social media companies to block and remove unlawful online content:
(1) A Social Media Company shall, upon being intimated about any online content by the Authority [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)], in writing or through email signed with electronic signature, which is in contravention of any provision of the Act, or any other law, rule, regulation for the time being in force or instruction of the National Coordinator, act within twenty-four hours to remove, suspend or disable access to such online content;
Provided that in case of emergency, the Social Media Company shall act within six hours to remove, suspend or disable access to such online content. (Rule 4(1).)
In addition, a social media company is required to “take due cognizance of the religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities of Pakistan.” (Rule 4(3).) A social media company is also required to “deploy proactive mechanisms” to ensure “prevention of live streaming through Online Systems in Pakistan of any content in violation of any law, rule, regulation for the time being in force or instruction of the National Coordinator particularly regarding online content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.” (Rule 4(4).) “Extremism” is defined in the Rules to mean “the violent, vocal or active opposition to fundamental values of the state of Pakistan including the security, integrity or defence of Pakistan, public order, decency or morality, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” (Rule 2(d).)
Companies must register with the PTA within three months of the rules coming into force. (Rule 5(a).) They must also establish permanent registered offices in Pakistan with a physical address located in Islamabad within three months of the rules coming into force and appoint a focal contact person who will report to the national coordinator. (Rule 5(b)–(c).) Further, they are required to establish “one or more database servers in Pakistan within twelve months of the date of publication of these Rules to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy.” (Rule 5(d).) Companies are also obligated to “remove, suspend or disable access to such account, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries and posts on online content that are involved in spreading of fake news or defamation and violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan.” (Rule 5(e).)
If the PTA notifies a company that particular online content is false, the company is required to “put a note to that effect along with the online content.” Investigative agencies must be provided with “any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or run by the respective Social Media Company, in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version.” (Rule 6.) Rule 7 also allows for blocking an online system if a social media company fails to abide by the provision of the Rules. Moreover, if a social media company fails to abide by any of the Rules, the national coordinator may impose a penalty up to 500 million rupees (about US$3,232,070).
The filing of complaints regarding the blocking or removal of unlawful online content, as well as their review and appeal, is provided by chapter IV of the Rules. Under Rule 8, any person, natural or juristic, or a ministry or government department (including a company owned or controlled by the government) can file such a complaint.
Reaction to the New Rules
International and domestic NGOs have criticized the government for its tightening of control over online social media content through these Rules. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for a “rollback” of the Rules, which they said were promulgated in secret “without public consultation.” Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a member of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and chair of the Senate Human Rights Committee, told the CPJ that the Rules were seen “as an attempt to further restrict space of free discourse in Pakistan.” The Digital Rights Foundation (DSF), a local advocacy NGO to protect women from online harassment, raised “strong objections to the Rules because they severely restrict the freedom of expression and privacy of Pakistani citizens in online spaces” and are a “blatant violation of Article 19 (freedom of speech and information) of the Constitution. They exceed the boundaries of permissible restrictions within the meaning of Article 19 and lack the necessary attributes of reasonableness.” Nighat Dad, the executive director of the DSF, also told Reuters that “the definition of extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state.” She fears the Rules will “be used against dissent, free speech and for political gains.” The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and other civil society organizations have launched a national movement to pressure the government to revoke the rules and plan to hold nationwide protests against the rules on March 4, 2020.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association with members like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, expressed “concern that unless revoked, these rules will severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy” and that the “sudden announcement of these rules belies the Government of Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and investment. In fact, the rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.”
The government, on the other hand, defended the rules, denying that they were created to tighten control over online political content, but rather to deal with harmful and unlawful content on social media that was “spreading disorder in society by propagating pornography, sexual abuse, child abuse, hate speech and sectarian material.” Also the government holds that it will “help them monitor and mitigate online content” that has to do with terrorism, extremism, fake news, incitement to violence and national security. In response to the growing criticism, the prime minister in a meeting decided that all local and international stakeholders will be “taken on board” before the Rules are implemented.
Current Status of the Rules
On February 28, 2019, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication formed a Committee headed by the chairman of the PTA that will undertake a “broad-based consultation with relevant segments of civil society and technology companies about these rules and complete the process within two months.” However, civil society organizations have said in a statement that as long as the rules are still approved by the Federal Cabinet and have not been withdrawn, the consultative process is “merely token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input.” On March 3, 2020, Dawn newspaper asked the chairman of the PTA to clarify the current legal status of the rules. The chairman responded that “[t]he rules are expected to be improved/amended suitably at the end of consultation process. Implementation of [existing] rules has been suspended.”