Govt’s revised internet rules fuel tension with tech firms

Published June 29, 2021
Internet companies have yet again pushed back against Pakistan’s amended social media rules. — AFP/File
Internet companies have yet again pushed back against Pakistan’s amended social media rules. — AFP/File

INTERNET companies have yet again pushed back against Pakistan’s amended social media rules, noting that the most problematic provisions remain unchanged in the latest draft that they say has in fact “regressed” in comparison with previous versions.

The third version of the social media rules, titled the ‘Removal of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021’ was published by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) earlier this month.

“The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) and its member companies are disappointed with the proposed revisions,” said AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine over email with Dawn.

Despite promises of change, barely any changes were made to the draft of social media rules for a third time, regrets a stakeholder

“Despite repeated feedback from industry over several months, the draft rules still include a number of problematic provisions — such as data localisation and local presence requirements — that undermine the country’s digital growth and transformation agenda,” he said.

Expressing their disappointment over the consultation process, the AIC has submitted comments to the MoITT on the amended draft. “The latest draft, which replicates the previous draft with only minor changes, shows that the consultation process was not undertaken with a view towards substantive changes,” it said.

The AIC and its member companies continue to have concerns on various aspects of the rules, including decryption of data, fixed turnaround times for blocking content, local presence requirements including data localisation, and the ability of government agencies to make confidential content removal requests, among others.

Under the amended rules, internet companies are required to establish a physical office in Pakistan, and appoint a grievance officer based in the country.

The AIC said it was particularly worrying that large portions of the rules went beyond the scope of the parent act (Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2016). In particular, mandatory local incorporation requirements, instead of being removed for these reasons, appear to have been expanded with a requirement to have a dedicated grievance officer based in country, it regretted.

Pakistan follows India’s lead in its demand for a dedicated grievance officer to deal with compliance requests. India, too, is faced with a similar tussle with tech companies. An interim grievance officer at Twitter India, resigned weeks after being appointed under the country’s digital media rules.

Transparency

Additionally, the AIC pointed out, the rules allowed a broad range of state agencies to make confidential requests for content removal through Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), without any visibility on the source of the complaint. “This appears to be entirely antithetical to values of transparency,” it said.

Under the rules, the PTA can take cognisance of any online content, make legally binding determinations on its lawfulness, and issue removal directions to social media platforms. “The authority has been empowered to hear reviews against its own decisions,” the AIC noted.

The companies said they remained committed to working with the government on meaningful consultation towards balanced regulation. They advised that the adoption of balanced rules that incorporate industry feedback was an opportunity for Pakistan to set itself apart from the rest of the South Asia region.

The AIC urged the IT ministry to incorporate the industry’s feedback, which was geared towards “practical and effective solutions” to support Pakistan’s continued digital growth and transformation.

Local pushback

Local stakeholders, who participated in the consultation process, echo similar sentiments.

“A consultation process is only meaningful if the recommendations and concerns of stakeholders are engaged with and reflected in the final outcome,” said Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation. “Merely giving civil society and other actors a seat at the table does not make the consultation inclusive,” she said.

According to Usama Khilji, Director of Bolo Bhi, the consultation process was an “insult” to the intelligence of key stakeholders that were consulted, as barely any changes were made for the third time despite promises of change.

The experts hoped that the Islamabad High Court would rule on the vires of the Constitution that these draconian rules present. They also urged the parliament to act to amend Peca 2016 to delete Section 37 as a starting point to address the issue of content moderation.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2021

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