Published last month by the information ministry and entitled “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020,” the new regulations replace an earlier set of rules that were suspended in February because of a civil society outcry.
The initial aim was to provide a legal framework for article 37 of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, but they have ended up going much further, granting disproportionate and discretionary powers to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the online content regulator, which is a direct government offshoot.
In view of the complete lack of consultation, several stakeholders have said they will challenge the regulations in the courts.
“We urge the Pakistani government to reconsider this iniquitous decree which, as it stands, subjects online content to completely arbitrary censorship by the executive,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “These rules will deprive Pakistani citizens of reliable and independent information on the Internet, which has become one of the few remaining spaces where this is still possible. As such, they are quite simply unconstitutional.”
On national security grounds, the rules provide for the withdrawal or blocking of any content that “excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the federal or provincial government” or “harms the reputation of any person holding public office.” In practice, this would mean that any comment critical of a government official could be immediately censored.
It is equally concerning that the rules also provide for the censorship of any content regarded as indecent, immoral or harmful to the “glory of Islam,” without giving any precise definition of these extremely vague concepts. The interpretation is left to the PTA, which thereby acquires arbitrary and almost infinite powers.
The rules also empower the PTA to act as both plaintiff and judge. It is the PTA that decides, without reference to a court, whether content violates the criminal code and, worse still, it is the PTA that reexamines cases in the event of a challenge, and rules on any appeals.
It is also envisaged that all these procedures are activated in a completely opaque manner. The nature of content that is blocked and the identity of those who denounce “forbidden” content will remain confidential. This lack of transparency will prevent the public from knowing the scale of the censorship to which they are being subjected and the identity of their censors.
Finally, social media and Internet access providers are required to implement the censorship themselves. They are given 24 hours – or six hours in urgent cases– to delete or block content regarded by the PTA as contentious. In the event of failure to comply with one of its directives, the PTA can order the blocking of an entire website or social network.
Platforms are also legally obliged to hand over user data when asked, including data from private and encrypted communications. And platforms with more than 500,000 users are required to open an office in Pakistan, install servers there and register with the authorities.
This model of censorship and total content control is directly based on the model pioneered in neighbouring China, which is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Pakistan is ranked 145th, six places lower than in 2018.