Tech firms ask govt to frame online harm rules within legal scope

Published June 5, 2020
The AIC also encouraged PTA to ensure that any rules adhere closely to their parent legislation. — AFP/File
The AIC also encouraged PTA to ensure that any rules adhere closely to their parent legislation. — AFP/File

A day after the government officially began its consultation meetings with local stakeholders, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) on Friday submitted comments and recommendations on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020.

The AIC is an industry association that comprises leading internet and technology companies namely Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, AirBnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Grab, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten, and Yahoo (Oath).

Earlier in May, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had uploaded a survey questionnaire on its website to seek input from the public and relevant stakeholders for “refining the suspended rules”.

Separate consultation meetings with media and civil society were held on Thursday (June 4), amid a boycott by human rights groups who refused to participate in the review process until the rules were revoked.

The AIC, in its submission to the PTA, appreciated that the federal government, through multiple public statements, had committed that the rules stood suspended.

“However, given that the rules were framed by the Federal Cabinet, we request that the rules formally be withdrawn through the same process to allow for a constructive multi-stakeholder consultation,” it said.

The AIC has been actively engaging with the Pakistan government on several proposed draft policies such as the Draft Data Protection Bill 2020, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Regulation on Web TV and Over the Top TV as well as Pakistan’s Digital Taxation Framework, to which it has submitted recommendations.

Adherence to parent law

The AIC also encouraged the PTA to ensure that any rules adhere closely to their parent legislation.

It noted that the PTA had outlined some preliminary objectives for the rules on its website, including that they should meet the statutory requirement of framing rules under Section 37 (2), Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016.

The statute requires the rules to facilitate only the powers enumerated under Section 37 (1), which are to remove or block access to information under certain circumstances.

As such, topics such as data localisation, access to user data, misinformation and data breach notification requirements should fall outside the scope of this consultation, it pointed out.

It also noted that an obligation to issue fake news corrections was beyond the scope of powers granted in Peca. The Peca does not envision the creation of entirely new categories of unlawful content through delegated legislation such as the rules.

The tech firms encouraged the PTA to frame the rules specifically in relation to the matters specified in Section 37 (2) of Peca, 2016.

National coordinator

The recommendations highlighted that the creation of an entirely new authority known as the 'National Coordinator' is beyond the scope of powers granted in Peca.

The provisions that allowed the Office of the National Coordinator to search and seize data without proper legal oversight is contrary to the scheme of Peca 2016 under which only the PTA may seek the removal of unlawful online content and agencies authorised under Section 29 of Peca may seek user data, it said.

“We note that these crucial elements were completely absent in the previously published version of the rules and hope that the PTA takes this opportunity to address this omission,” the AIC added.

Call for consultation paper

In addition to publishing a survey questionnaire, the digital firms strongly recommended that the PTA and the government put in place a comprehensive framework for the consultation, including a paper or exposure draft that outlines details on the government’s proposed regulatory approach.

A consultation paper should seek extensive public policy input, which will inform the development of a holistic public policy approach to deal with the issues at hand, and if needed, ask about and inform the contours of any future additional regulatory or legislative framework, it said.

Meanwhile, the PTA said it had received the AIC response and was presently reviewing it.

“The consultation committee will engage the tech companies in the coming weeks and respects its genuine feedback,” the PTA said, adding that the committee was allowing broad-based consultation on regulation matters.

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