Under amended rules, posting ‘immoral content’ is now an actionable offense, while social media companies are required to establish local offices
The Information and Technology Ministry on Thursday notified the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2021, making the posting of any “immoral content” on social media a cognizable offense.
The controversial rules, initially approved in November 2020, have been repeatedly derided by activists and the Asia Internet Coalition comprising most major social media platforms. Several major companies have warned that they would not be able to continue offering their services in Pakistan if the rules are implemented and have criticized the government for ignoring their feedback on the viability of the rules. The AIC, last month, stressed that several clauses in the rules would actively undermine the government’s stated goal of promoting digital growth.
Information and Technology Minister Aminul Haque, in a statement, ignored these concerns, claiming that the amended rules would give Pakistani consumers “full freedom of expression” under Article 19 of the Constitution, while penalizing the promotion of “immoral and obscene” material. The rules would, he said, facilitate contact between Pakistanis and social media companies, adding that they banned livestreaming of extremist, terrorist, hateful, obscene and violent content. Social media companies would also have to remove content against Pakistan’s “integrity and defense,” he said without any clarification on what constituted such content.
Under the rules, social media companies and service providers would have to devise community guidelines for users to educate them on “acceptable” content to upload. “No negative content concerning any individual will be uploaded,” said Haque, adding that material concerning individuals’ private life would also be banned. The amended rules also ban “content against Pakistan’s cultural and moral trends”, as well as content that could “destroy” morals and harm the mental and physical development of children.
The amended rules would apply to all social media platforms, said Haque, including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Google. Social media companies are also required to set up offices in Pakistan “as soon as possible.”
All social media companies are required to ensure the following within three months of the rules coming into force:
- Register themselves with the Pakistan Telecommunication
- Appoint an authorized compliance officer based in Pakistan to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act
- Appoint a dedicated grievance officer based in Pakistan to redress grievances, within seven days, against online content
- The PTA would grant social media companies 48 hours, instead of 24 hours previously, to remove or block access to objectionable content
- The PTA has been empowered to initiate proceedings against any service provider or social media company if it fails to remove or block access to content on its directions within the specified time. This includes issuing notices seeking written explanations for non-compliance within 48 hours
- If the service provider fails to respond to the notice, the PTA has been empowered degrade the services of such service providers
- Under the rules, the PTA can also block or issue directions to block an entire online information system or impose a penalty of up to Rs. 500 million for failure to comply
- Social media companies are required to provide to investigation agencies any information, data, and content, in decrypted, readable, comprehensible format