On February 12, Pakistan’s federal cabinet has approved the decision to introduce a new set of rules to regulate social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Tiktok. The new regulations will be part of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (2016), and will require social media companies to open their offices within three months and set their servers within a year’s time in the country.
The decision has been deemed to be controversial by the proponents of internet freedom who have stressed, the regulations are a ploy to scrutinize dissent and opposition voices in the country. According to the law, “digital media companies need to appoint a representative in Pakistan to deal with a national coordination authority, which would be responsible to regulate content on social media platforms”.
Taimur Rehman, the general secretary of Pakistan’s Mazdoor Kisan Party, told Peoples Dispatch, that the main objective of bringing such a law to regulate the social media appears to be to deal with dissenting political voices from within the country that may pose some kind of threat to the government, and can be extremely dangerous.
Reports say the companies have been advised to set up their data servers in Pakistan besides making it compulsory for them “to provide data of accounts” found guilty of various crimes such as “targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, engaging in harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content” to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Last year, the then information minister, Fawad Chowdhary, referred in a press conference that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government was planning to come up with a mechanism to control hate speech in the country. However, monitoring social media was never discussed before. Hence, the cabinet approval is going to be resisted by the opposition.
People like Rehman fear that any ruling government can use these laws for their political advantage. “Imagine a person who was earlier using social media platforms to criticise the policies of the government can be pinpointed by the National Coordination Authority, and the person’s mouth can be immediately shut. What does it imply? These social media laws may be a powerful weapon for the ruling body to control dissent and opposition,” he added.
Besides the legal document also mentions, in the event a company fails to follow the rules, the national coordinator “may issue instructions for blocking the online system, social media application or others services owned or managed by the said social media company.”