Pakistan Govt Okays Virtual Offices For Social Media Companies

Pakistan Govt Okays Virtual Offices For Social Media Companies
The federal information technology czars of the country finalized revisions to the social media rules, offering a middle path for social media platforms to open their offices in Pakistan and to block content.

Having received severe backlash domestically and strong pushback from the social media platforms, the federal government has now decided to forego a key demand it has had to regulate the platforms.

Sources in the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication have suggested that they have evolved a consensus on revisions to the much-criticized Social Media Rules. The rules have been drafted by the government, while they will have to be ratified by the federal cabinet they do not require parliamentary oversight.

According to the revisions made to the rules, the federal government has climbed down from one of its biggest demands -- of opening physical offices in the country, like in neighbouring India.

Instead, the government, after taking feedback from the platforms, has agreed to allow social media companies to open virtual offices in Pakistan.

These offices, however, will have to remain operational around the clock.

While it is unclear at this point whether there are any further prerequisites attached to these offices and their exact scope, it is clear that one major focus will be the blocking of content.

In this regard, the government has proposed dividing content into three categories.

Of these, one category is yellow, in which content such as flagged will have to be blocked within a 48-72 hour window.

Content flagged in the red category would have to be blocked immediately.

The social media platforms, most of the major ones which have united under the banner of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), have yet to issue a formal response to the policy changes.

In the past, social media platforms have vehemently opposed government calls to open localized offices to address what it believes are both legitimate and legal concerns.

Platforms have argued that the government has been more than happy to impose blanket bans on their platforms if they did not comply with removing certain content, while in the past, representatives appointed in the country have been threatened with arrests.

Social media platforms also routinely publish reports on government requests for data. While the government says it files requests for data or for removal of content in accordance with local laws or in consequence of legal obligations in courts, the platforms do their own assessment of such requests and choose to accept or reject requests that appear overly broad or vague.

Most recently, the government imposed bans on social media platforms Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the aftermath of the May 9 incidents. Curiously, it did little to stop the protests.

Earlier in the year, when the country's internet regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), banned the global publicly contributed information database Wikipedia, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif constituted a high-powered ministerial committee comprising minister for Law, Economic Affairs and Political Affairs and Information and Broadcasting to review the matter. He subsequently ordered to unblock the website.

"Blocking the site in its entirety was not a suitable measure to restrict access to some objectionable contents / sacrilegious matter on it. The unintended consequences of this blanket ban, therefore, outweigh its benefits," read the statement from the PM's office.

He went on to form a five-member cabinet committee chaired by the minister for IT and comprising ministers for law, information, commerce and communications.