Pakistan's Draconian Social Media Law: New Rules to 'Quashing Personal Freedoms'

The new draconian social media law by the Pakistan government is attempting to quash personal freedoms.

Under the name of national security, religious sentiments and ‘respect for institutions’, the government introduced a new law for digital media in November 2020, wrote Sulman Ali, a Pakistani blogger.

The Imran-led government has formed new rules titled “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rule 2020,” under the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 (PECA).

The RBUOC has placed all internet service providers (ISPs) at par with social media companies, while all the requirements for social media platforms have been imposed on ISPs as well. In short, the new rules are applied to any social media company operating in Pakistan.

As per the ambit of new rules, it includes all social media users, social media companys’, service providers, website owners or information systems.

Under the new rules, they cannot publish, host, display, change, transmit, update or share any content that belongs to someone else, is blasphemous, pedophilic, pornographic, is against the religious, cultural, ethnic sensitivities and beliefs, harms minors, or threatens the security, integrity of Pakistan’s defence or public order.

As per Sulman, critics argued that the new rules cover almost every aspect of life hence, often quashing personal freedoms. The vagueness of the rules is its biggest problem according to analysts.

“Everything in these new rules is vague, as the government has tried to bring something parallel to PECA, to apply a new legal framework,” said Asad Baig from Media Matters for Democracy, reacting to the new rules.

Meanwhile, digital rights activist Nighat Dad said that the new regulations go against its parent act, PECA. “First, it bypasses judicial authority and now Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) doesn’t need a warrant, rather it can contact the social media companies directly for the data of a user. Secondly, it includes intimidation, as any content ‘harming the reputation’ of federal/provincial government, the public office holders will be questioned. This is against Article 19, which deals with freedom of expression.”

The strongest reaction came from internet companies, including international giants. The companies specifically opposed the government’s demand to implement these new rules above their own global community guidelines.

Furthermore, the companies are required to open their office in Pakistan, appoint a local representative, and establish a database server in the country. Furthermore, they have to hand over the data to FIA in decrypted and readable form.

The companies are also bound to comply with censor orders of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and have to provide data related to users. In case of failure to do so, they would face complete blocking in the country, along with Rs 500 million fines.

Due to such restrictions, tech-giants, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, threatened to leave Pakistan, if these social media rules stay.

Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) expressed its alarm over the new laws, as well as the government’s vague process, through which these rules have been developed.

In a statement, AIC said: “The rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.”

Moreover, the new rules have been challenged in Islamabad High Court (IHC), where the hearing is underway. During the hearing, the Attorney General of Pakistan informed the court that “the government will review the rules and it will be held after consultation with relevant stakeholders and petitioners.” The IHC has given the government a 30-day deadline to present a report on framing social media after consulting with stakeholders. The court asked AGP to submit the report on April 2.

Doubting the Imran-led government intention, who in November 2020 had promised a ‘consultation’ with the companies, which never happened, the blogger viewed that Imran Khan’s promise to ‘review’ the new rules will face the same consequence.

The rights activists believe it is highly unlikely if we keep the history of the country, in this regard.

The clampdown on media has already reached a new level with restricting reports, shutting down the programs, and job losses in the media industry.

“Now, it seems, it is the turn of social media as the authorities want to restrict the freedom of expression because it is against the ‘national interest’,” wrote Sulman.

Courtesy: IE

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