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Pakistan backtracks on social media rules, to hold a consultation on notified rules

Buckling under pressure from global Big Tech, the Government of Pakistan said that it will now hold “extensive and broad based consultation” on the social media rules that it notified on February 13. According to the government’s statement on February 25, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will undertake an “extensive and broad based consultation process with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies”. It is significant that the consultation is happening after the Rules have been notified, that is, put into effect. It is not clear how the consultation will help at this stage. We have reached out to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication for comment. The New York Times first reported this development.

This was done at the direction of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Called the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, the Rules called for content takedowns within 24 hours, take down of accounts of Pakistani citizens outside Pakistan for spreading fake news, labelling of false content, sharing information with the Investigation Agency, data localisation, mandating physical office in Pakistan, and appointment of a National Coordinator to oversee regulation of social media. Read a summary of the rules here.

The American Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs tweeted that “New restrictions on social media platforms in #Pakistan could be setback to freedom of expression & development of digital econ. Unfortunate if Pakistan discourages foreign investors & stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion w/ stakeholders”. This statement came after the Pakistani government decided to hold a consultation. Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multistakeholder organisation, has welcomed this decision to hold a consultation.

The Rules had come under intense criticism from the global and Pakistani businesses and civil society for impinging on people’s privacy and freedom of expression. Digital Rights Foundation, based in Pakistan, had also criticised the Rules as they “severely restrict the freedom of expression and privacy of Pakistani citizens in online spaces”.

Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which includes Google, Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn, Amazon, etc. as its members, had written to Prime Minister Khan that these Rules would “severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy” as it would make it difficult for AIC members to offer services to Pakistani users and businesses. It had problems with the policy making process itself and urged the government to initiate a proper public consultation “to ensure wider participation to develop a new set of rules”.

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Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & ITES (P@SHA), the country’s only IT and ITES trade association, had said that these rules would “adversely affect Pakistan’s IT sector growth and its fledgling e-commerce industry” and criticised the fact that these rules were drafted without engagement and consultation with the IT industry and other stakeholders.

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