Cabinet approves amendments to controversial social media rules

Published September 29, 2021
This file photo shows the icons of different social media applications. — AFP/File
This file photo shows the icons of different social media applications. — AFP/File

The federal cabinet on Tuesday approved amendments to digital media rules introduced last year under which social media companies would have to set up offices in Pakistan within six months and take action against objectionable content in 48 hours.

A lawmaker privy to the development confirmed to Dawn.com that the rules, which were framed under Section 37 (unlawful online content) of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca), were approved by the cabinet.

According to the amended rules — Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 — social media companies would have to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months of the law coming into force.

They would also have to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same time frame. These officers would have to address complaints within seven days.

The rules also direct social media companies to establish an office in Pakistan, preferably located in Islamabad, within six months of the rules coming into force. Previously, the rules directed the companies to set up their offices within nine months.

Moreover, the PTA would give 48 hours, instead of 24 hours previously, to the service provider or social media company for removing or blocking access to online content.

The PTA may initiate proceedings if the service provider or social media company fails to remove, block access or comply within the specified time.

This includes sending a notice seeking a written explanation for the non-compliance within 48 hours.

If the service provider fails to respond to the notice, the PTA may degrade the services of such service providers for a period of time.

Under the rules, the PTA has also been authorised to block or issue directions for blocking the entire online information system or impose a penalty of up to Rs500 million.

The amended rules will be published in the Gazette of Pakistan after which they will become part of the existing rules for digital media.

Severe backlash

The social media rules, which were approved in November 2020, had faced severe backlash from digital rights activists, the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK) and the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC).

Tech companies had also threatened to discontinue their services in Pakistan if the rules were not amended, saying the regulations would make it difficult for them to continue their operations.

The rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). During one of the hearings on the petition, the attorney general had assured the IHC that the government was ready to review the rules.

Read: Draconian internet rules

In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan constituted an inter-ministerial committee to review the controversial social media rules.

The committee prepared the rules by August and they were passed by the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases on Sept 23.

However, internet companies have criticised the amended version as well, 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 Asia Internet Coalition and its member companies are disappointed with the proposed revisions," AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine had earlier told Dawn.

"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 had said.

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