Under regulations approved by the federal cabinet, social media companies will be obliged to help law-enforcement agencies access data and remove online content ranging from terrorism to challenging religious sensitivities.

In this August 11, 2019 file photo, an iPhone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans.
In this August 11, 2019 file photo, an iPhone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans. (AP)

Pakistan's government has approved new rules for regulating cyberspace, which opponents say could be used to stifle dissent and free speech.

Under regulations that were approved by the cabinet late last month but were not immediately made public, social media companies will be obliged to help law enforcement agencies access data and to remove online content deemed unlawful.

Companies that do not comply with the rules risk being blocked online.

The approval of the new rules follows accusations by opposition parties that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has sought to intimidate and silence its opponents and allegations of media censorship. Pakistan's military has also faced accusations of cracking down on media and free speech.

But Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqi, the top official at the ministry of information technology that authored the regulations, said the new rules would help "identify and weed out unwanted and slanderous online content".

No new legislation is needed, Siddiqi argued as the rules were approved by the cabinet and fall under existing laws dating to 1999 and 2016.

"We needed to do it to uphold the integrity, decency and respect of individuals and sanctity of institutions," he said. 

The new rules on social media are described by the authors as intended to prevent live streaming of online content relating to "terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security".

From defamation to terrorism to religious sensitivities

The new rules on social media are described by the authors as intended to prevent live streaming of online content relating to "terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security".

Social media companies will be obliged within 24 hours to respond to a request to remove "unlawful" material, or six hours in emergency cases. They will have three months to register with authorities in Pakistan and must have a physical presence in Pakistan.

When required, the companies will be required to provide subscriber information, traffic data, content data and any other information or data that is sought, the regulations stipulate.

The rules also state that interpretations of the regulations by the authorities in Pakistan "shall take precedence over any community standards or rules or community guidelines or policies or any other instruments devised by a social media company".

'Overreach'

Nighat Dad, who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, says the new rules will give the authorities unflinching powers to stifle social media.

"The worrying part for me is that the definition around extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have these unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state," she said.

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

Farieha Aziz, founder of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group, also voiced concern.

"This is the kind of overreach we were worried about," she said. "They're trying to go beyond the ambit of the law, trying to go above and beyond what the law allows them to do."

Offline controls on content

Pakistan’s government earlier in the year baned a movie which offended hard-line religious groups in the Muslim-majority country.

The right-wing groups had raised allegations of blasphemy over the film, “Zindagi Tamasha,” or “Circus of Life,” by Pakistani director Sarmad Khosat, which was to be released in late January. 

Its debut was scrapped following objections from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party and its followers.

Their claims drew attention again to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death sentence for a conviction of insulting Islam. There have been widespread complaints that the law is used to settle scores and intimidate religious minorities.

Khosat denied the allegations against the movie. He was asked by authorities to appear before the special government committee — which includes officials from the Central Board of Film Censors and a representative of Tehreek-e-Labbaik — to answer questions about his movie.

The film’s storyline focuses on a conservative, devout Muslim businessman, Mohammad Rahat Khawaj, whose life unravels after a video of him watching a woman dance at a wedding is posted online and goes viral. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies