The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) content monitoring and restriction dragnet is twofold. First is the excessive powers granted to the authority that allows it to regulate online content under the ill-defined Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) of 2016. Second is the arbitrary, non-transparent manner in which the overall regulation process is run.

Prior to enforcement of Peca 2016, seeking the blocking of a website would require complainants to go through an inter-ministerial committee which would then direct the PTA to order ISPs to block the relevant website. However, after the enforcement of Peca, the PTA has the authority to directly block what it considers to be “objectionable content”.

As Pakistan’s internet penetration is on the rise, there is also an uptick in complaints regarding objectionable content. In a briefing to a Senate committee on Friday, the PTA chairman said that more than 850,000 URLs had been blocked since 2010.

Authority’s ever-widening regulation dragnet includes problems of transparency, arbitrary blocking

He told the panel that the PTA had blocked 230 links on Dailymotion, 15,800 Facebook pages, 6,624 links on YouTube and 22,000 miscellanous links containing blasphemous content.

In the same meeting, the PTA voiced concern over limiting the authority to curb the spread of harmful content online, particularly blasphemous content. Referring to the lack of compliance by social media companies, the PTA official said they “are not sensitive to our sensitivities”. Referring to the 2012 directives of the Supreme Court to ban YouTube in Pakistan over blasphemous caricatures on the platform, the PTA chairman hinted at a possiblity of banning social media if the problem was not addressed.

Notwithstanding the economic, political and social consequences of such a move in the digital age, the authorities have often threatened to ban social media platforms, particularly Twitter, in the past as well.

Interestingly, only earlier this month the PTA chairman had noted a decline in the use of pornographic content in Pakistan. Amir Azeem Bajwa told the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication: “In fact, Google wanted to know how we achieved the declining trend of access to pornographic websites.”

Regardless of the criticism, recent transparency reports of tech companies show that they have started giving in to government requests for content restriction.

Facebook’s latest transparency report showed Pakistan was among the countries which restricted the highest volume of content. Twitter, known for turning down government requests, also received a large number of complaints (2,300 accounts).

While the nature of content is not specified, the PTA says it has reported unlawful content that included anti-state, blasphemous, hate speech, contempt of court and defamatory posts.

Overall, the PTA says it has blocked over 850,000 URLs — out of which 50,000 websites carried blasphemous content.

While these numbers have been officially attributed to the PTA chairman, it is assumed that the authority maintains a list of sites it filters or limits access to in Pakistan. However, the details of such a list have not been made public. No guidelines describing the reasons behind particular censorship cases, bodies involved, or mechanisms employed are publicly available.

In the past, PTA has suggested installation of web management systems to effectively identify unlawful content. An automated technical solution for monitoring, analysing and curbing online content and grey traffic is now in place — which means more arbitrary content restriction.

In June, users were denied access to several popular websites. The authority said “erroneously” included on the list of websites hosting objectionable content have been those that have been blocked by the authority. In fact, the authority was not even aware that several thousands websites had been inaccessible to the users for nearly a week.

Adding to the transparency woes is the absence of an appeal process. In a statement issued by the authority on the issue recently, the PTA clarified that a portal-based complaint management mechanism was in place through which it received complaints and after carrying out verification, processed them for blocking. “All records for such complaints are being maintained and shared with all authorised forums,” it stated. However, the portal is for complaints about blocked content but no option is available to lodge an appeal if a website has been blocked under Peca, of which Clause 4 of Section 37 guarantees and outlines the process.

To ease the regulation process, the government has instructed the PTA to prepare rules regarding the usage of social media. According to the PTA chairman, the draft process is already under way. The rules are meant to streamline how the authority monitors online content.

Once the rules are issued, there may be a process that makes things clearer; however, there will be no guarantee that blocking will be stopped or reduced.

The rules for investigation under Peca for the Federal Investigation Authority were issued in 2018 — and did not offer much benefit. Nevertheless, any move that permits increased transparency of the process would help us understand the limits of the ever-widening dragnet better.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2019

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