Islamabad: Amid the clamour and confusion, Pakistan’s government has appointed a committee to review the country’s new social media regulations.
The panel has been tasked to hold consultations with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies to regulate online content without violating personal freedoms.
The process is to be completed within two months.
The committee is headed by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa. Other members are Eazaz Aslam Dar, additional secretary of the IT ministry; Tania Aidrus, member of the Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit in the PM’s Office and Dr Arslan Khalid, focal person to the PM on digital media. Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari and Barrister Ali Zafar will also be involved in the discussion.
What are the new regulations for social media?
Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved a new set of regulations on social media called “Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm) 2020” on January 28, 2020.
The regulations require social media companies to establish representative offices in Pakistan, to remove any ‘unlawful content’ within 24 hours, to prevent live streaming of any content “related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.” If a company does not comply, its services can be blocked and face fines of up to 500 million rupees ($3.24 million). The officials say that the law was not meant to restrict online platforms but in fact “to invite them to register in Pakistan and expand local footprint.”
Law draws harsh criticism
While the officials claim that the regulations would help monitor and mitigate hate speech, extremism and fake news, the critics are concerned that the new laws approved without public consultation may violate freedom of speech sections in Pakistan’s constitution. There are serious apprehensions regarding the law in various segments of society, including parliamentarians, media and civil society. Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a member of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and chair of the Senate Human Rights Committee, said that the new law would limit space of free discourse in Pakistan.
Social media giants “have not threatened to leave Pakistan”
Reacting to the speculation and reports claiming that global tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter have threatened to leave Pakistan, Dr Arslan Khalid said there is no truth in such claims.
“In the letter to PM Imran Khan, Asia internet Coalition (AIC) expressed its reservations over the new set of rules. It called for public consultation to ensure wider participation and that is exactly why the committee has been formed. There’s no mention of any threat by any social media company of leaving Pakistan” Dr Khalid told Gulf News.
“The letter clearly says that AIC was not against regulation of social media and in fact offered Government of Pakistan to work in collaboration towards solutions.”
In the letter, dated February 15, AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine, stated that unless revoked, the new rules “would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy” and make it “extremely difficult” for digital companies to operate in Pakistan.
While acknowledging that Pakistan’s extensive legislative framework governing online content, AIC said that its “members have been working in consultation with governments . using both computer science tools and human reviewers to identify and stop a range of online abuse.”
The AIC comprises leading internet and technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Airbnb, Apple, Booking.com, LinkedIn and Yahoo among others.
GNI welcomes decision to hold consultation
The Global Network Initiative (GNI), which earlier expressed serious concerns about the broad scope of the new social media law, has welcomed the government’s decision to hold “extensive and broad-based consultations” on the rules.
“GNI and its members stand ready to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with the government of Pakistan and any other government that is considering how best to address content regulation,” said GNI executive director Judith Lichtenberg.
The GNI is a multi-stakeholder organisation composed of leading information and communication technology (ICT) companies, investors, academics, digital rights and media freedom groups.
2. 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.
3. If a company fails to abide by the provisions, all platforms, applications and services run by the company may be blocked or face a penalty of five million rupees. The company can file a representation within two weeks.
4. To provide to the regulator decrypted, readable content and “any other information” about users on demand.
5. Social media firms will have to establish registered offices in Islamabad within next three months and appoint a Pakistan-based focal person for coordination. Establish one or more database servers in Pakistan to record and store data and online content.
6. A company will deploy proactive mechanisms to prevent live streaming in Pakistan of any content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.
— There were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan
— There were 37 million social media users in Pakistan
— Social media penetration stood at 17%