The government is planning to impose new rules which could radically redefine Pakistan’s digital landscape.

While our sources indicate that the government primarily wants to “curb blasphemous content from social media”, the rules will allow it to control all online content in the country.

The new rules (called the Citizens Protection Against Online Harm Rules) are additions to existing legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and will allow the government to bypass industry stakeholders and only require Federal Cabinet approval.

Our sources indicate that Federal Cabinet approval has already been granted.

While the document (available here courtesy of Digital Rights Monitor) talks about social media companies, the definition for “social media companies” is broad enough to bring any company with an online presence under its ambit.

If companies don’t abide by any of the rules in the 14-page document, they’ll be blocked in Pakistan.

Here’s a summarized version of the most drastic changes proposed by the government.

A National Coordinator (NC) to be Set Up

A National Coordinator (NC) will be appointed within 15 days.

The NC will be responsible for coordination, advising the federal and provincial governments, and engaging with social media companies. He will also have the power to summon focal persons of any company to discuss how they operate their businesses.

Local Offices of Social Media Companies, Focal Persons and More

When the rules come into effect, social media companies will be required to:

  • Register with Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) within 3 months.
  • Establish an office in Pakistan with a physical address in Islamabad within 3 months.
  • Appoint a focal person to deal with the Authority and NC within 3 months.
  • Add servers in Pakistan within 12 months.

Strict Control Over Content

The rules state that unlawful content is anything “which is in contravention of any provision of the Act, or any other law, rule, regulation for the time being in force or instruction of the National Coordinator.”

Concerningly, MoIT or NC’s interpretation of rules and laws will take precedence over community standards, rules, community guidelines or policies of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others.

The Ministry of Information and Telecommunications or the National Coordinator can ask any social media company to remove, suspend or disable access to such content within 24 hours. Urgent situations will require action within 6 hours.

Furthermore, if companies get a notification that certain content is false (with the ability to judge the veracity of the content resting only with the NC and the Authority itself), they’ll have to put a note alongside the content which states exactly that.

Access to Information of Citizens

Companies will be required to provide any requested information in a “decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version,” bypassing the legal process currently outlined in PECA.