2900% increase in Pakistan government’s requests for Facebook ‘user data’ in last 5 years

Islamabad, 21 December 2017: Analysing the Facebook transparency reports, it was found that the Pakistan government’s requests for the data of [Pakistani] Facebook users has increased 30 times in only last 5 years and has gone from 35 in [June] 2013 to 1050 in [June] 2017.

With an estimated 25 million accounts being operated from Pakistan, Facebook takes the cake in popularity among Pakistanis. Apparently, it’s equally popular within the government agencies and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for a completely different reason.

Facebook Transparency Report, a document that Facebook Inc. publishes bi-annually, reveals that the requests of Pakistani government for the data of Facebook users have progressively increased in the past five years. Since January 2013, Pakistan’s government has made a total of 1050 requests concerning some 1540 users. On an average, 62% of these requests were facilitated by Facebook and yielded some form of related (user) data as a result.

According to this report, Pakistan’s government has also made 1121 requests for the preservation of data to ‘to preserve account records in connection with official criminal investigations for 90 days pending receipt of the formal legal process’. As a result of these requests, data of 1653 of user accounts were preserved.

In addition to the data and data preservation requests, the report also reveals that in the past five years, Pakistan’s government has made 2203 requests to restrict content on Facebook.

Media Matters for Democracy in March 2017, put in a Right to Information request addressed to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, asking for a copy of communications with Facebook for removing this content and a list of pages and posts removed as a result of these requests. No response was received till the filing of this report.

Earlier today, a DRM correspondent contacted officials at Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. On the condition of anonymity, they revealed that they do not have a clearly defined process to reach out to corporates such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. According to sources, in the absence of new rules under Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, they were following the ‘old procedure’ in which web links along with justification were sent to corporates to take down the content by the Authority.

Sources also revealed that different government agencies including the Federal Investigative Agency, reach out to PTA to forward requests to corporations. “For the most part, we are acting as a post office to forward requests of other agencies to corporates,” said one official.

The officials also ‘complained’ that it was a tedious task to convince corporates to take down content. “A lot of reasons had to be given for blocking the content.”

Social media monitoring wing:

It has also been learned that a special wing to monitor social media is also being established within the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.

As per details, a fresh graduate of Grade-17 has already been hired for the position of Assistant Director to lead the wing and actively monitor social media for “unwanted content”. However, no further details were shared about the operations of this wing and the role it may undertake.

Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan's leading media development organisation. He's also the CEO of the Media Lab, country's first and only incubator and accelerator for digital media startups. He tweets at @asadbeyg.

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