KARACHI: The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has regretted that the Pakistan government released its rules on regulating social media without consulting stakeholders and urged the authorities to reconsider its move.
The AIC is an industry association that comprises leading internet and technology companies, namely Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, AirBnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Grab, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten, and Yahoo (Oath).
In a statement released on Thursday, AIC managing director Jeff Paine said: “The Asia Internet Coalition is deeply concerned to see the Pakistan Government release a set of broad reaching online rules without any consultation with stakeholders, including industry.”
“These rules jeopardise the personal safety and privacy of citizens, and undermine free expression. We urge the government to reconsider these rules, which are likely to be detrimental to Pakistan’s ambitions for a digital economy,” he said.
PTA chairman backs rules, citing content removal concerns
The rules, titled ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’, have been notified under sections of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016.
The rules outline extensive guidelines for social media companies on content regulation and engagement with Pakistan, including directives to establish a permanent office in the federal capital, record and store data within the national boundaries for citizen data privacy, and comply with government requests for removal of content irrespective of the company’s regulation policies.
More requests, less engagement
For the past year, the government has been part of various efforts to engage social media companies to make them comply with requests for content removal.
During the first half of 2019, Pakistan reported the highest volume of content (31pc) to Facebook.
Interestingly, the Facebook transparency report only captures content that is considered locally illegal by government authorities. This means, none of the 5,690 items from the transparency report were removed for violating Facebook’s content policies but under Pakistan’s cybercrime law.
“In its transparency report for the period Jan-July 2019, Facebook published that 5,690 URLs, reported by PTA, were entertained on the basis of violation of local laws,” PTA told Dawn.
According to the PTA, the authority has reported a total of 14,296 URLs to Facebook, out of which the platform has removed 12,226 (6,535 for violation of its own community standards).
Under the new rules, social media platforms will be required to remove any ‘unlawful content’ pointed out to them in writing or electronically signed email within 24 hours, and in emergency cases within six hours. With the online harm rules in effect, if for instance, the authority now specifies 2,000 items to Facebook for removal, the platform will be required to fully comply with it.
The PTA said it reported content that mostly relateed to blasphemy, sectarian/hate speech, anti state, defamation and impersonation. “The nature of the content is sensitive and hurts the sentiments of the people and/or has potential to disrupt law and order. Hence, the reporting of such content may appear on a higher side,” it said.
To date, around 30 stakeholders (including intelligence, counter-terrorism departments, Frontier Corps, ministries, home departments) can report content to the PTA for removal/blocking.
Despite increasing pressure from Pakistan on restricting `objectionable’ online content, the PTA said social media platforms were mostly entertaining the requests in accordance with their own community guidelines.
“Most of the content reported as defamatory and blasphemous is considered as freedom of speech and not differentiated from sacrilegious and related to impersonated activities. This creates problems for the PTA to get the same restricted,” it said.
Twitter, too, has been under constant scrutiny for non-compliance and lack of engagement with Pakistani officials.
In August, the PTA specified to Twitter 200 accounts that were suspended apparently for posting about Kashmir. The PTA said it had raised its concerns with the Twitter administration about the biased approach towards Pakistani Twitter users in strong words. Twitter has also been threatened with a ban over non-compliance with authorities.
However, according to the authority, Twitter’s response has not been very encouraging.
In an exclusive interview with Dawn on Wednesday, PTA chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem termed the online rules a ‘statutory requirement’.
“Our aim is to initiate official engagement with social media companies on content management. We want them to invest in local representation for Pakistan with whom we can convey and communicate our concerns,” the PTA chairman said while discussing problems related to content management.
According to the online harm rules, if a social media company fails to abide by its provisions, all platforms, applications and services being run by the company may be blocked or a penalty of five million rupees may be imposed on it.
The PTA chairman, however, said the authorities were not intent on banning platforms. “We are inviting them to register in Pakistan and expand their local footprint. Pakistan is working towards establishing a working relationship with tech companies,” he maintained.
The rules, drafted with input from various government stakeholders — including the law and justice ministry and MoIT— centralise the control of online regulation to the office of a ‘National Coordinator’, who will be responsible for content regulatory functions, and engagement with social media companies on behalf of the federal government. The rules instruct the IT minister to designate the national coordinator within 15 days of its notification.
Under Peca 2016, the PTA is the designated authority to regulate online content. Government sources told Dawn that the PTA chairman was likely to be appointed the national coordinator.
However, according to IT secretary Shoaib Siddiqui, the coordinator was yet to be appointed.
The PTA said it had not received the rules notification officially and could not comment in this regard.