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Pakistan passes strict social media regulations

Seerat Chabba
February 24, 2020

The Pakistani government has passed a new set of laws it says targets "terrorism and fake news" on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Critics say the rules open the door to mass censorship.

Pakistani conservatives protesting Facebook in 2010
Image: picture alliance/dpa/epa/R. Khan

The government of Pakistan recently passed a new set of regulations that critics say will give the government more control over how Pakistanis can use social media

The "Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020" oblige social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to block or remove posts that are considered objectionable by the government. The government can also acquire data and information from the companies.

Officials maintain that the regulations will help them monitor and mitigate online content that has to do with "terrorism, extremism, hate speech, fake news, incitement to violence and national security." 

Social media companies will also be required to set up a physical presence in the country and appoint a contact person who will report to a "National Coordinator" at Pakistan's Ministry of Information and Telecommunications.

The laws were reportedly approved by the government without public consultation and enacted behind closed doors at the end of January. 

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A broad definition of 'extremism?'

"The worrying part for me is that the definition of extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state," Nighat Dad of the Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation (DSF) told Reuters news agency.

"I do fear that this will be used against dissent, free speech and for political gains."

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According to a report by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Pakistani officials reported 14,296 URLs to Facebook in the first half of 2019. Facebook removed more than 12,000 of them. Half of the websites violated Facebook's rules, the other half violated "local laws."

Social media companies are required to remove flagged content within 24 hours under regular circumstances, and six hours in case of emergencies.

New laws 'excessive' 

Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) said in a statement that the new laws violate freedom of speech clauses in Pakistan's constitution, and exceed the "boundaries of permissible restrictions" under Article 19.

"This article allows for some 'reasonable restrictions' on freedom of speech," DRF said. Content falling into this category includes anything considered as blasphemous to Islam, harming national security or violating "decency and morality." 

However, DRF said that the role of "National Coordinator" set up under the the new laws cannot be considered as having a constitutional mandate under which "restriction on freedom of speech may be placed" or as a "benchmark to undermine fundamental rights."

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A joint statement from various Pakistani civil society actors said that the new social media laws "point towards the centralization of power to exercise strict controls over digital and online narratives."

"The policy itself is dictatorial and unresponsive to the global digital environment," said the statement from the Media Matters for Democracy initiative.

"We believe that rather than protecting citizens from online harm, these rules stand to create significant harm by isolating Pakistani citizens from the global Internet."

Many Pakistani civil society activists fear that restrictions on social media companies may lead to strained relations between the platforms and the government of Pakistan at a time when the vital digital economy of the country is beginning to take off. 

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