PTA empowered to block online speech critical of government & public officers; gets power to block entire online systems

Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules extend the scope of censorship

Islamabad, 18 November 2020: Recently notified rules under Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) hold that online dissemination of any information that intimidates or harms the reputation of Federal or Provincial Government or any person holding public office or attempting to “excite disaffection towards” the government would be seen as threat to ‘integrity, security and defense of Pakistan” and would be removed or blocked. 

The Rules, replace much criticised Citizen Protection (Against Online Harms) Rules 2020, that were suspended in February by Prime MInister Imran Khan following heavy criticism by civil society, media and industry.  Experts say that the updated Rules do not offer much improvement than the previous ones and appear to further extend the ambit of censorship.

“The only real difference between these rules and citizen protection rules is that the office of Naional Coordinator has been removed. Apart from this, PTA continues to enjoy extra ordnary powers and control over online content, with very little in terms of transparency and oversight”, says Asad Baig, Executive Director, Media Matters for Democracy. 

Increasing scope of censorship 

Section 4 (1) of the rules creates an extended framework for censorship, giving PTA the authority to remove and block everything from criticism of governments and civil servants, information that can create ‘contempt, hatred or disaffection’ towards ruling governments to fake and false information. The Rules also allow PTA to remove content that is seen to be against decency and morality as defined in the Pakistan Penal Code.

“It is outrageous that definitions from the Penal Code have been directly plugged into the Rules. To convict anyone of a penal offense, a judicial procedure is involved; the rules will allow PTA to make judgements about illegality of content, without involvement of the courts, essentially giving the authority powers that they are not granted in PECA”, says Sadaf Khan, co founder Media Matters for Democracy, “The sections of PPC held as reference to define decency and immorality range from sale of obscene books to sale of obscene objects, obscene acts and songs and Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. So censorship now extends to songs that PTA deems obscene as well”.

Contradictions in Intermediary Liability Provisions 

The Rules also give PTA the power to block entire online systems, a move that extends PTA’s powers beyond the scope of Section 37 of PECA. Similarly PTA has been given the authority to ‘register’ international technology companies, a power that is not given through the actual Act and remains ultra vires.  Section 9 of the Rules also created new obligations and liabilities for social media companies, in contradiction of limitation of intermediary liability provisions for technology companies in PECA. 

Technology companies, including global tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon have already registered their concerns regarding these provisions through multiple statements and letters to the Prime Minister. The statements issues through Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) have continued to warn that companies may find it difficult to continue operations in Pakistan if they are expected to abide by these conditions. 

“The Rules appear to be an attempt to grant PTA as much power as possible without paying heed to the digital economy and digital rights implications” says Baig, “The disastrous consultative process, the secrecy around this draft and the provisions of the rules all create a hostile environment for operation of tech companies, bringing in question the viability of a digital Pakistan”. 

The Rules have been made available online by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication on 18th of November, forty two days after they were notified by the federal government. 

Read the rules here;

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