June 5, 2020

Social Media Companies instructed to establish local presence, provide government with unencrypted user data and block access to reported content within 24 hours

Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 pave way for a new wave of censorship and surveillance 

Islamabad, 12 February 2020: Digital Rights Monitor has acquired a copy of a document containing the notification of Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, which chalks out the government’s plan to centralise control of digital information and expression to one central ‘National Coordinator’. According to our sources, the Rules have been approved by the Federal Cabinet.

The rules define extensive responsibilities for Social Media Companies, including instructions to open local offices, host information of local servers and ignore their own mandate and obligations to follow government instructions on matters of content removal and blockage. The rules made by the Federal Government, announce the establishment of the ‘office of National Coordinator”, who will be responsible for coordinating efforts of stakeholders for regulatory functions, would advise the Federal or Provincial Governments, issue instructions to relevant bodies and engage with the Social Media Companies on behalf of the Federal Government. The rules instruct Minister Information Technology to designate a National Coordinator within 15 days of the notification of these rules.

Ensuring local presence of  social media companies

The Rules include an extensive list of obligations that have been drafted for social media companies. A primary obligation is to register with Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) within three months of notification of the rules and establish a local presence. The Social Media Companies are also instructed to “establish one or more database servers in Pakistan by the Social Media Company, within twelve months of the date of publication of these Rules to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy”. 

Influence on digital narratives 

According to the Rules, 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.”

The rules also state that Social Media Companies “shall remove, suspend or disable access to such accounts, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries and posts on online content that are involved in spreading of fake news or defamation.”

In addition, if the government identifies any online content as false, Social Media Companies are mandated to put a note to that effect along with the online content.

Access to citizen’s private data and information 

Social Media Companies are also being instructed 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”.

“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. Under PECA 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” says Asad Baig, Executive Director, Media Matters for Democracy, “There is no existing data protection regime in place and with such Rules, the privacy of the citizen’s data is threatened further”.

Making way for blocking

The document further states that if Social Media Companies fail to abide by the rules, all platforms, applications and services being run by the company can be blocked.

Read the full set of rules here.

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