• Telecom regulator can block online content on court, govt orders
• Social media companies will have to be registered within three months
• Fines of up to Rs500m may be imposed

ISLAMABAD: The Ministry of Information Technology notified on Thursday new social media rules, allowing the telecom regulator to block any website or platform on the directives of court and federal government or under any law.

The rules, titled the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021, have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016.

Some analysts pointed out that the new rules do not offer any incentive or protection to creators of content for social media.

Under the rules, the social media companies will have to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months, and establish offices in the country “as and when feasible”.

The service provider, social media company and Significant Social Media Company will not knowingly host, display, upload, publish, transmit, update or share any online content in violation of local laws, according to the rules.

Under the rules not only the social media companies but also the service providers are responsible to deploy, through Online Information Systems, mechanisms to ensure immediate blocking of livestreaming of content relating to terrorism, hate speech, pornography, and anti-national security matter on receiving intimation from PTA.

The rules highlight that every person has the right to disseminate any online content under Article 19 of the Constitution, but this does not allow violations related to “glory of Islam” if the content constitutes an offence under Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (Act XLV of 1860), the “security of Pakistan” as covered under Article 260 of the Constitution and “public order” if the matter constitutes an act that is an offence under Chapter XIV of the PPC, 1860.

The restrictions relate to any fake or false information that threatens public order, public health and public safety, or goes against “decency and morality” if the online content violates sections 292, 793, 294 and 509 of PPC, 1860 or “integrity or defence of Pakistan”.

The rules also allow PTA to take cognisance of any online content and exercise its powers under Section 37(1) of Peca to remove or block such material.

PTA can give 48 hours to the service provider, social media company, significant social media company or user to comply with the directives of PTA for removing or blocking access to the content.

In case of emergency, PTA can direct the service provider, social media company, significant social media company or user to remove or block access to an online content within 12 hours instead of 48 hours from the time of receiving the directives.

However, PTA will have to specify reasons for the “emergency” in writing.

Under the rules, the social media outlets are required to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same timeframe; these officers will have to address complaints within seven working days.

The social media companies can be fined up to Rs500 million for various violations, according to the rules.

At the same time, PTA will not entertain any complaint that has been filed by an irrelevant person (who is not an aggrieved person) unless the complaint is filed by a guardian on behalf of a minor.

Any anonymous or pseudonymous complaint, therefore, will not be taken up by PTA.

The rules bar PTA from taking up complaints for removal or blocking of online content, if the complainant fails to furnish necessary information or supply relevant documents, or fails to attend hearings despite notices, etc.

Apart from any individual, the ministries, federal, provincial or local government departments, a law enforcement or intelligence agency of the government can file a complaint to PTA over any social media content. PTA will keep the identity of the complainant confidential.

Under the rules, PTA has also been authorised to block or issue directives for blocking the entire online information system or impose a penalty of up to Rs500m.

The first version of the social media rules was notified in November 2020, but it resulted in serious backlash from several quarters, including civil society activists, media and social media companies and even the internet service providers.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2021

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