The information technology ministry on Thursday notified new social media rules, allowing the telecom regulator to block any website or platform on the directions of a court, the federal government or interior ministry or under any law of the time.
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.
At the same time, the new social media rules do not offer any incentive and protection to the content creators on social media.
Under the rules, social media companies will have to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months as well as establish their 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.
Not only the social media companies, but even the service providers are responsible to deploy mechanisms to ensure immediate blocking of live streaming through online information system in Pakistan related to terrorism, hate speech, pornographic, incitement to violence and detrimental to national security on receiving intimation from the PTA.
The rules highlight that every person had the right to express and disseminate any online content under Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, but this does not includes violations related to "glory of Islam" The online content must not be an act that constitutes an offence under Chapter-XV of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (Act XLV of 1860), the "security of Pakistan" as covered under Article 260 of the Constitution and "public order" under Chapter-XIV of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860.
The restrictions relate to any fake or false information that threatens public order, public health and public safety and "decency and morality".
If the online content is an offence if it violates Sections 292, 793,294 and 509 of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 or "integrity or defence of Pakistan".
The rules also allow the PTA to take cognisance of any online content and exercise its powers under Section 37(1) of PECA to remove or block it.
The PTA can give 48 hours to the “service provider, social media company, significant social media company or user”, to comply with its directions for removal or blocking access to an online content.
In case of an emergency, the 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 the receiving of the directions.
However, the PTA will have to specify the reasons for the “emergency” in writing.
The social media outlets are required to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same time-frame. 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.
At the same time, the PTA will not entertain any complaint that has been filed by an irrelevant person, who is not an aggrieved person. In the case of a minor, the complaint or application is preferred by his guardian. Any anonymous or pseudonymous complaint will not be taken up by the PTA.
The rules bar the PTA from taking up the 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 an intelligence agency of the government can file a complaint to the PTA over any social media content.
The PTA will keep the identity of the complainant confidential.
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 first version of the social media rules was notified in November 2020, but it resulted in serious backlash from several quarters including the civil society, media, social media companies and even the internet service providers.
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