Cabinet approves law requiring social media companies to register, open offices in Pakistan

Social media companies and platforms will be required to provide data of accounts found guilty in committing offences according to Pakistani law to intelligence agencies, LEAs

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ISLAMABAD: The federal cabinet on Wednesday approved a new set of rules to regulate social media, requiring companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even TikTok to register themselves and open offices in Pakistan as proponents of Internet freedom worry that the legal document would be used to keep social media companies in check.

The rules and regulations have been included in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and senior officials in the Ministry of Information Technology confirmed to Geo News that the cabinet had given the green light to the legal document.

Further, Federal Secretary IT & Telecommunication Shoaib Siddiqui confirmed to Geo News that after the Cabinet's approval, the rules and regulations need not be presented in the Parliament for approval.

According to the law, all global social media platforms and companies would have to register in Pakistan within three months and open offices in Islamabad within the same time period.

The law requires the digital media companies to appoint a representative in Pakistan to deal with a national coordination authority, which would be responsible to regulate content on social media platforms.

It further requires the companies to set up data servers in Pakistan within a year and makes it compulsory for them to provide data of accounts found guilty of various crimes — including targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, engaging in harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content — to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

Read more: Fawad Chaudhry says govt to launch crackdown against hate speech on social media

Authorities would, therefore, take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions at home and abroad on social media. The law would also help the law enforcement authorities obtain access to data of accounts found involved in suspicious activities.

It would be the said authority's prerogative to identify objectionable content to the social media platforms to be taken down. In case of failure to comply within 15 days, it would have the power to suspend their services or impose a fine worth up to Rs500 million.

The legislation, in addition, defines terms such as social media, social media company, law enforcement, and the law in this context. Matters highlighted by the authorities may be taken up in high courts in all four provinces.

With respect to international laws, especially those in India, the official said he was unaware of legislation system there. It is to be noted that most social media companies were based in Canada and the United States and it was impossible to control content while sitting in Pakistan.

Moreover, given their history, the social media companies cannot be made to oblige or share information or details of posts on the platform with intelligence agencies.

When asked if the government had informed the social media companies on which the new legislation would be implemented, a senior official said it was too important an issue. "Had we contacted the social media companies, there would have been a hue and cry in the country," the official said.

"That's why we didn't do a lot of consultation in this regard since it was utterly and necessary to regulate social media [and so] we set up this law in a hurry," the official added.

Last year, the then-information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, had said during a press conference that the government had come up with a mechanism to control hate speech on social media.

"We have to a great extent regularised hate speech on formal media. I am thankful for the cooperation of the formal media on this. I am happy to tell you that in the next step we have prepared a mechanism in which we will be able to control hate speech on social media," he had said. 

He had stressed the importance of regulating social media as "digital media is taking over formal media".