June 1, 2020

Facebook’s new Transparency Report highlights Pakistan among countries with most content restriction requests

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

On May 12, Facebook released its transparency report for the second half of the year 2019. The recently released Jul-Dec 2019 transparency report that the US and India top the list with most requests sent to the platforms, at 51,121 and 26,698 respectively. It also indicates an increase in the number of total requests Facebook received from around the world. Where the first half of the last year witnessed 128,617 requests, the latest transparency report projects around 8 percent increase in this number at 140,875.

The bi-annual global overview is part of an effort of the social media platform to report legal and government requests that it receives from the countries it operates in. Facebook says it responds to government requests for account information and/or legal and emergency cases, and reviews them based on relevant laws and its own terms of service.

The report also specifies the compliance rate for each country, indicating the percentage of requests that Facebook accepted.

A section of the report also highlights the number of posts that were restricted on Facebook’s platforms, this includes Instagram, on the request of t governments. Russia, Pakistan and Mexico top this list, in that order.

Pakistan:

Facebook’s transparency report highlights that it received a total of 2,027 requests of user data from the government that met a 52% compliance rate, suggesting that information of at least 1,054 users was provided to the Pakistani authorities. Furthermore, the government had sent 2,270 requests of content restrictions to the social media company, out of which 2,149 requests were for the restriction of content on Facebook, and 121 for that on Instagram.

According to the data, Facebook restricted 140 pages and groups, whereas a total of 2,009 posts were restricted in the country. In addition, 5 accounts and 116 posts were restricted from being viewed by Pakistani users on Instagram.

Where content restriction saw a drop in number from the previous report, requests for data witnessed around 9 percent increase, and compliance rate increased by 1%. The breakdown of this rate indicates that out of 2,027 requests for data, 44% of the total of 149 emergency requests was provided data for, and 53% of the 1,878 legal requests for data was complied with.

Emergency requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and do not require a legal procedure to be followed as in the legal requests that are sent to Facebook and require more detailed information for Facebook to take action. These requests, in addition to being evaluated as per the local laws of the reporting country, are also seen under the platform’s terms of service and community standards.

Facebook reports that the requests received from Pakistan between July and December 2019 were sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), mostly in the context of violation of laws, and were complaints of advocacy against the polio vaccine, blasphemy, anti-judiciary content, proscribed organisations supporting separatism, defamation, and condemnation of the country’s independence. It further shares that the platform restricted access to at least five items on private accounts for defamation.

In March 2020, in a senate standing committee meeting on information technology, Director FIA Cyber Crimes Wing said that Pakistan has not signed Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with any social media platform which results in a lot of requests for data sent to the companies to go unanswered, and compliance is not observed. He saw it as a hindrance in conducting investigations on cybercrime cases that the authority is tasked to handle under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016.

The authorities, including the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications (MoITT) and PTA, have multiple times attempted to pass legislations to regulate online content on social media platforms. In February, the government passed the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules under s.37: Unlawful Content of PECA that gives wide powers to PTA to block content on the internet. Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), and other civil society organisations recognised this legislation as an attack on civil liberties, including the Constitutional rights of privacy and freedom of expression in the country.

Similar to the aforementioned Rules, the recently proposed draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill extends this intention with its indication of the requirement from social media platforms to localise data in order for the authorities to have easy access and control over users’ information in Pakistan. MMfD raised key concerns on the bill in its statement here, and asserts that the bill in its current form will set a dangerous precedent. 

Written by

Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran

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