Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan on Thursday defended the government’s new social media policy, saying that the new rules had been created for the protection of citizens.
"There was no mechanism that protected our citizens' interests [... or] our national integrity," she said, adding that after the enactment of the new policy, social media companies would be mindful of hurting Pakistan's national interests.
The federal government has approved a new policy under which social media companies will be obliged to disclose any information or data to a designated investigation agency, when sought. Failure to do so would entail a fine of up to Rs500 million.
Furthermore, 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. The companies will also have to establish registered offices with a physical address located in Islamabad within the next three months and appoint a focal person.
Awan, while speaking to the media today, insisted that previously, the government "did not know who was creating fake pages and harming socio-cultural and religious values". The new rules, Awan said, would not only expose Pakistan's opponents but would also enable authorities to stop extremists who spread hate on the basis of religion and race.
She claimed that social media was spreading disorder in society by propagating pornography, sexual abuse, child abuse, hate speech and sectarian material. "[About] 73 per cent of Pakistanis are internet users. Social media users are increasing, especially among the youth. We will not take any step that is against the interests of these users," she assured.
She said that because these companies have no offices or focal persons in Pakistan, whenever the government asked them to remove harmful material, the decision depended on the companies' disposition. Under the new law, the companies would have to establish their offices in the country within three months which will bring them in the ambit of the Pakistani legal system, the premier's aide explained.
The social media companies will also be required to share their databank with the government as per the law.
"The companies will have the right to challenge the authority's decision if they think it will harm their interests," Firdous said, adding that the forum for appeal will be the high courts.
Earlier, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry had also denied perceptions that the new rules made to regulate social media content in the country are for political control.
Speaking to the media outside Parliament House, Chaudhry explained that the new rules were made to regulate advertisements and harmful content on social media.
"The keyword here is harmful content," he said, adding that "social media is used for maligning women, blasphemy and defaming people and anyone on social media knows there are groups that for Rs20,000 or 30,000 will run trends against you and defame you."
He pointed out that digital media "had taken the space of formal media" and there has been an exponential increase in digital advertising. If it isn't regulated, it will further harm the already-suffering journalists and people, and cause damage to formal media, he cautioned.
He said the aim is to hold social media companies answerable within the country's economic framework.