Social Media Rules have become a pertinent aspect for the exceeding use of the internet throughout the country. Over the years, the usage of social media has vastly multiplied, urging the need for bounding the users to rules and regulations. In Pakistan, these rules have evolved over the last few years and are documented together as the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules, 2021”.
Severe Backlash to the Previous Rules (2020):
The social media rules, which were notified in November 2020, had faced severe resentment from digital rights activists, the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK), the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), and the general public. The technology firms had also threatened to halt their services in the country if the rules were not changed, adding that the new regulations would make it tough for them to resume their operations.
In addition to that, those rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). During one of the hearings on the petition in the high court, the attorney general of Pakistan had guaranteed that the federal government was ready to review the rules. Consequently, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan formed an inter-ministerial committee to review the controversial social media rules.
The Revised Social Media Rules 2021: What do they Entail and our Recommendations for the Government
Revised Rules (2021):
These rules of 2021 are basically an amended version of the November 2020 formulated rules that faced backlash and criticism from all segments of society. The contemporary rules have been framed under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) by the Ministry of Information Technology. These grant permission to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block any website or online forum at the decision of court, Ministry, or any other law enforcing organization. An element of contention in these Social Media Rules comes forth when the content creators are not offered any incentive or protection as it is very important for digital growth in the country.
The rules also make it mandatory for the Social Media Companies to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within the coming three months. Along with this act, these companies must also establish their official offices in the country whenever feasible. The service providers and social media company (significant or ordinary), under these laws will not have any content published that go against them in any manner.
Under these laws, the Internet Service Providers are also taken into account along with the Social Media Companies. It is obligatory for both the entities to ensure mechanisms that block live streaming of any immoral or unethical degrading content through online information system in Pakistan, upon receiving intimation from PTA.
There are some relaxations as compared to the last draft of these rules after resentment from various entities. According to the revised rules, the internet users are not curtailed from expressing their views, as per Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution. However, there still exist checks and balances that do not allow certain sensitive issues to be promoted. These includes the religious segment, contribution to any offense, or even to the security forces of Pakistan. These are issues that can’t be shared or talked about and would not be accepted if violated. The restriction also applies on any false information being spread that contributes to the peace and harmony of the society.
A few other things that are banned under the revised rules include “content against Pakistan’s cultural and moral trends” in addition to the content that could “destroy” the morals, ethics and harm the mental and overall development of children.
The IT and Telecom Minister Amin ul Haque said the revised social media rules would apply to all social media companies including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Google, etc. Furthermore, the said that prior to the issuance of the notification, the social media companies would be required to establish their offices in Pakistan “as soon as possible”.
Sweeping Powers to the PTA:
PTA is also authorized under these rules to take notice of any online content and use its power to remove or block it. The authority now will provide 48 hours to the relevant service provider to comply with the instructions of removing or blocking of the content. However, in terms of an emergency, PTA can seek the removal of the online content within 12 hours from the time of receiving the directions (whilst specifying the reason of emergency).
The Social Media outlets would now also have to appoint an authorized compliance officer and grievance officer to the PTA that will cater the complaints within seven working days. These companies can have a fine up to Rs. 500 million imposed on them. Complaints made by any aggressive or irrelevant person (anonymous) to the PTA shall not be entertained. For any minor lodging a complaint, accompanying guardian must be vivid.
Furthermore, any individual can file complaints to the PTA against any fraud or hate speech online, with the assurance of it being kept confidential. The PTA however will not accommodate any complainant, if required necessary information is not provided timely or hearings are not complied with. Even, the government departments and ministries ae eligible to file a complaint to the PTA over the said issues.
Digital Media Report amidst the Revised Rules:
Digital media freedom acts as a pillar of a democratic nation. However, as per a recent report from IRADA, the state of digital media freedom in the country remained fragile during 2020-21. It is due to some regulatory pressures and threats against digital freedom of speech as devised in the social media rules. The netizens were exposed to rising online disinformation, which include fake messages related to Covid-19 origin and treatment, which put their health and safety in danger. There is no stringent and affective measure drafted in the revised social media rules that can address the issue of disinformation.
The report was entitled ‘Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021’ and it was published by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) on International Internet Day.
While Pakistan registered a minor improvement in internet accessibility and use amid the global COVID 19 pandemic, the digital freedoms of media workers and internet users were intimidated by the government’s enforcement of controversial rules to regulate online content.
The report encompasses 5 areas concerning digital media freedoms. These include access, online freedoms, privacy, legal framework, and judicial actions. The reason for incorporating these areas is to forge a wide-ranging understanding of the impediments faced by journalists and citizens in the effective and ethical use of the internet.
The digital divide has a debilitating effect on women, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups and the revised social media rules can add to this misery.
Recommendations for the Government:
Facilitating Content Creators:
Unfortunately, the revised social media rules doesn’t contain any clause for facilitating the content creators, protecting them or providing them with any incentives. The government must work on this and facilitate the content creators in order to improve the digital landscape of the country. It can also help in boosting economy as the influx of remittances in dollars to content creator can improve the balance of payments.
Freedom for Constructive Criticism towards any Entity:
One of the contentious clause which hasn’t been changes in the new rules is that no one can speak against the armed forces and some other segments of the government. It is a great threat to the digital freedom of speech as institutional development in a democratic society can come with positive criticism. So that is an authoritative rule and must be changes.
Issue of misinformation:
We are living in an era where misinformation has increased to a great deal. False news is propagating everywhere and sometimes it gets really hard to distinguish between the true and false news. In the new revised rules, there is no clause regarding the issue of misinformation and particularly how to distinguish it. So the government must act with impunity and free online classes of critical thinking to make people aware of how to distinguish between the false and true news. Apart from that, they should appoint an authority whose sole job is to counter the misinformation and holding those accountable who are responsible for spurring it.
Countering Phishing attempts:
The hacking attempts have become a common sight in Pakistan. Recently, National Bank of Pakistan’s Systems has been hacked. In addition to that, a minister told that FBR’s website is subjected to 71000 hacking attempts each month. So in order to tackle this horrific issue and to safeguard countries assets, the government must add clauses in the new social media rules like if any entity like the NBP faced phishing attempts and doesn’t able to resolve on its own, then such entity will have to appoint any renowned agency to counter hacking attempts in the future.