Islamabad, Pakistan – The Pakistani government has announced it will revise new internet regulations that rights groups have decried as a draconian measure to limit free speech and increase internet surveillance.
During a hearing on a petition challenging the legality of the Removal and Blocking of Illegal Online Content (RBUOC) rules in the capital Islamabad on Monday, Pakistan’s Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan said society groups civilian would be among the invited to the consultations.
The new rules were adopted in November and set broad parameters for the country’s internet regulator to censor online content.
They also demanded from social media companies to comply with all Pakistani government censorship requests within 24 hours, and in some cases six hours.
The RBUOC rules are an extension of government powers under Pakistan’s Electronic Crime Act (PECA), which was passed in 2016.
They allow the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the country’s Internet regulator, to censor content deemed to violate “the glory of Islam”, “the integrity, security and defense of Pakistan”, ” public order ”or“ decency and morality. “.
The regulations allow the government to ban online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if they do not comply with withdrawal requests; demand that all platforms – including messaging apps like WhatsApp – share decrypted user data with authorities without judicial oversight; and give the PTA broad powers to impose fines of up to $ 3.14 million for non-compliance.
Rights groups have denounced the rules as a violation of citizens’ free speech rights and having been adopted without adequate consultations with civil society, while tech companies – including tech giants Google , Facebook and others – said the data location and decryption requirements of impractical.
“Whenever civil society, social media platforms and internet businesses have opposed social media rules and regulations, the government has promised a more transparent and broad consultative process, and then comes back with many of the same reprehensible rules. intact, ”said journalist Amber Rahim Shamsi, who is one of the claimants in the Islamabad High Court case.
“We had no choice but to go to court. The promise of an attorney general review is cause for hope, especially with the court as a sort of guarantor.
Other rights activists, however, warned that they had little faith in the government’s promises to review the rules.
“The government, in my opinion, is only doing this to ease the pressure, which is the result of public criticism and now legal challenges,” said Farieha Aziz, co-founder of digital rights group Bolo Bhi.
Aziz, whose organization held consultations earlier this year on a draft settlement that the PTA refused to attend, accused the government of “acting[ing] in bad faith throughout ”.
“They could have started by being more transparent and accessible … Their previous experience with repeated rule changes at their discretion, without reflecting the comments, inspires little faith.”
Tech companies have also voiced “concern” about the regulation, with the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a regional organization that represents Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, saying in December that government consultative processes had so far been “neither credible nor transparent”.
“Large parts of the rules are not only unworkable for global internet platforms, they go beyond the scope of the parent law (PECA 2016), calling their legality into question,” AIC said in a statement. letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“In particular, the data location requirements in the Rules will prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing a free and open Internet and shut off the Pakistani digital economy from the rest of the world.”