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Monday Mar 02 2020
Web Desk

Social media rules: Digital rights group calls govt's call for consultation 'token to deflect criticism'

Web Desk
Digital Rights Foundation says the rules as they exist, merit no discussion at all. Photo: File

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has slammed the government’s decision to hold consultations to review the country’s social media rules, saying that the move was a “mere token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input”.

In a press release issued on Sunday, the foundation noted that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had announced the formation of a committee to begin consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 without clarifying the legal status of the rules.

DRF – run by digital rights activist Nighat Dad – said that as long as the cabinet approval for the rules remains in place “there can be no engagement or consultation”.

The foundation claimed that the government’s decision not to remove the cabinet’s rubber stamp on the rules showed that it was using “the consultation as a smokescreen while intending to implement and enforce the rules already prepared and approved”.

“The rules as they exist, merit no discussion at all,” said DRF, adding that for the protection of citizens “an open and informed discussion” will have to take place.

The non-governmental organisation said that to have a conversation on the rules, the government will first have to address the “abuse of authority” by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and government “especially their misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to stifle dissent and Section 37 of PECA in particular to report and restrict political speech”.

DRF also urged tech companies to “unequivocally state the terms of their engagement with the government on the rules”.

The group said that when tech companies enter into agreements with the government, citizens and end-users become “collateral” which it argued was a breach of users’ rights. It reminded tech firms that their actions will be scrutinised.

In response to the government’s call for consultations, DRF has put forth the following demands:

– The rules must be withdrawn by the Federal Cabinet and the decision, as documented through the process, be made public before any consultation is held

– Civil society has been categorical that Section 37 of PECA must be repealed. The consultation must begin by addressing the overbroad and arbitrary nature of Section 37 under which these rules have been issued and review the abuse of power by the PTA and government in carrying out its functions since the enactment of PECA

– The consultation must follow an open and transparent process. The committee must make public the agenda, process it intends to follow and clear timelines. All input provided should be minuted and put together in a report form to be disseminated for public feedback with a specified timeline which is reasonable, before which no Rules should be approved or enforced

Digital media giants reject social media rules

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) comprising global digital media giants has already banded together against the government's newly-introduced social media rules, threatening to suspend services if the laws were not amended.

In a scathing letter written to Prime Minister Imran Khan in February, the AIC — which includes Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, Airbnb, Line, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, among others — said it was difficult for them to operate when such rules were in place.

"The rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses," reads the letter by the association, referring to the Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm).

The new set of regulations makes it compulsory for social media companies to open offices in Islamabad, build data servers to store information, and take down content upon identification by authorities. Failure to comply with the authorities in Pakistan within 15 days will result in fines of up to Rs500 million and possible termination of services.

According to the law, authorities will be able to obtain access to data of accounts found involved in suspicious activities and will be able to take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions on social media both at home and abroad.

Last month, Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood had said that the bill was not final and will likely see revisions. “Meetings are being conducted to discuss it further," Mahmood had told Geo News show host Hamid Mir.

"The meetings will see that the issued notification is amended. The act is being revised,” he had said.