Block social media websites or increase our technical capacity, PTA chairman asks Senate panel

Updated July 26, 2019

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PTA chairman says tackling with blasphemous content on social media is a "huge problem". — AFP/File
PTA chairman says tackling with blasphemous content on social media is a "huge problem". — AFP/File

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa on Friday told a Senate panel that the government should either increase the body's "technical capabilities" or block social media websites in the country in order to stop the circulation of "blasphemous content".

While briefing the Senate Special Committee to examine purported grievances, Bajwa said: "[Dealing with] blasphemous content on social media is a huge problem. Most of the websites are being operated from other countries."

"The government should either formulate a policy and block social media websites in the country like China and the United Arab Emirates — [which would mean] developing social media platforms locally like China — or it should increase the technical capabilities of the PTA," he said.

Also read: How social media has become a war zone for competing narratives

The PTA chief also suggested that the government should sign mutual legal assistance treaties with other countries so that access to blasphemous content on international social media platforms can be blocked in Pakistan.

Barrister Saif Khan, who was chairing the meeting, asked if the body can "block the revenue" that social media websites — where blasphemous content is posted — earn from Pakistan. He further said that social media platforms, which operate from other countries, should appoint their representatives in Pakistan.

Bajwa told the panel that PTA has blocked more than 39,000 URLs since 2010. The authority also issues awareness ads in order to inform people that sharing blasphemous content is a crime, he added.

He told the panel that the PTA had received 8,500 complaints regarding blasphemous content on the internet but the authority had blocked 40,000 websites.

It also blocked about 850,000 websites that had pornographic content, Bajwa said. He admitted that websites were being hosted on the dark web in Pakistan, adding that it was "not easy to monitor it".

The official further said that websites blocked by PTA can be easily accessed through a proxy. He said that the government had instructed the PTA to prepare new rules regarding the usage of social media and the authority will submit them soon.

Barrister Saif said that the rules should apply to content that is blasphemous for any religion. He asked PTA to prepare new rules and assured Bajwa that they will be approved.

Officials of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) also briefed the committee on the matter and said that currently, the agency's cybercrime division was probing 12 cases. They said that Facebook and Twitter do not respond to most complaints lodged by FIA.

The officials also informed the panel that the FIA had received 32,000 complaints in the past three years and the agency had only 15 cyber experts on board.

'Comments taken out of context'

Later in the evening, PTA released a statement saying that the PTA chairman's comments regarding blasphemous content on social media "are being misquoted and taken out of context" in certain media reports.

The statement clarified that social media websites are being approached for the removal of such content and the blocking of these websites "was only used as an example to refer to the blocking of YouTube in 2012", a move made on the directions of the Supreme Court against the circulation of blasphemous caricatures on the social media platform.

"Hence the reports of PTA recommending blocking of social media websites are entirely false," read the statement.