The Government of Pakistan, already accused of censoring broadcast and print media, appears to now have set its sight on social media, according to the draft of a law formulated by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication.
The proposed law, Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, has already been approved by the federal cabinet but has yet to be tabled before Parliament. Under the law, which claims to protect citizens from online fraud, all social media service available in Pakistan, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, would be required to establish offices in Islamabad within three months of it coming into force.
In addition, the companies would appoint a local Pakistani as a focal person and set up a data server in Pakistan to store the data of Pakistani users.
The law envisages the creation of a National Coordinator, who shall be assisted by a committee, to advise the government about the “management or regulation or functioning” of social media companies. It would also ensure that social media companies comply with the government’s demands to block “unlawful” online content or risk penalties. Any decision taken by the National Coordinator, or the committee, would have the option to be challenged in a High Court within 30 days.
Under the proposed law, if a company doesn’t comply with the rules laid down by the government within three months, the National Coordinator would be empowered to remove “objectionable” content. A fine of up to Rs. 500 million would also be imposed on them in case of any violations.
Most troublingly for digital rights campaigners and those who wish to maintain privacy is a provision in the law that requires social media companies to provide access to law enforcement agencies with the identities of anyone found uploading “blasphemous or objectionable content” or any material that is deemed against the “national interest” or against national institutions. Under this same provision, anyone who uploads content against Pakistan or state institutions from abroad would also be penalized and could be blocked from view by any user in Pakistan or have their account suspended outright.
Under the rules proposed, the “interpretation or permissibility of any online content, by the Authority or the National Coordinator under law, rule, regulation or instruction, shall take precedence over any community standards or rules or community guidelines or policies or any other instruments devised by a Social Media Company.”
Social media companies have also been directed to comply with requests of “any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or run by the respective Social Media Company, in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version,” raising questions about the encrypted privacy offered by applications such as Whatsapp and Signal.
The law also requires social media companies to flag any content that the government deems to be “fake news”; a troubling prospect in light of several factually correct news items and statements being declared as “false” by ministers within the incumbent government.
As a final warning, the law notes, any company that refuses to comply with it would be liable to be blocked outright in Pakistan, leaving users with no access in line with the blocks placed on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in years past.
“The fact that the government feels that it is entitled to its citizens’ data, without going through any legal and judicial procedure demonstrate the dangerous intentions behind these rules,” says Asad Baig, the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy. “Under PECA [Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act], gaining search and seizure of devices and data can only occur under a defined legal procedure. However, the rules appear to be an attempt to override the prescribed procedures by creating a liability for social media companies who are simply being instructed to hand over citizen’s private data to the FIA,” he said, adding this law risks endangering citizens’ privacy.