On 16 July 2020, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) hosted a multistakeholder roundtable discussion to examine key provisions of digital content regulation in Pakistan through the lens of international human rights law and principles. The full content of the event report can be found here.
The discussion took part in the context of the passing of the Pakistani government’s Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 (“Citizen Protection Rules”). In 2016, the government introduced and passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which gave discretionary powers to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to remove or block, or issue directions to remove or block, access to online content “if it considers it necessary” for certain purposes through Section 37 of PECA. The section also included a provision calling on the PTA to develop rules that provide for safeguards, transparency, and oversight of these powers, which ultimately gave rise to the Citizen Protection Rules.
The roundtable began with an overview of the analytical framework used in GNI’s forthcoming policy brief, “Content Regulation and Human Rights in the Digital Age,” for considering good policy practice in content regulation. The brief examines content regulation efforts for their compatibility with three key principles of international human rights law: legality, legitimacy, and necessity. It also considers proportionality as a component of necessity and extends this analysis to privacy. Because controls on communication most directly impact fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy, the policy brief and discussion focused on these two rights.
After this initial discussion, Facebook presented on the global landscape of digital content regulation, outlining the challenges of regulating digital content. They identified three key themes that drive their approach to content moderation and regulation issues: consultation, transparency, and oversight.
Bolo Bhi followed with remarks on the Citizen Protection Rules. They reviewed the origins of the rules and provided a historical overview of the government’s efforts to mandate content removal. New efforts for content regulation, they said, should be premised on protections for citizens that are provided through the Constitution of Pakistan and international best practices, with accountability and remedy mechanisms for when citizens’ rights are violated.
After these presentations, participants engaged in an open discussion about digital content regulation in Pakistan, including discussing the challenges of the Pakistani context, risks of the Citizen Protection Rules for excessive censorship, and potential impacts of the rules on privacy, free expression, and the digital economy. Participants discussed a path forward for content regulation that should ensure due process is guaranteed and freedom of speech is not arbitrarily curtailed. Policymakers should ensure that efforts to regulate content should be fit-for-purpose so as to avoid impacting communication bluntly. Companies play a role in carefully reviewing requests to censor content under the framework of the rules, while ensuring their current content moderation policies and processes are transparent.
As content regulation initiatives continue to be introduced and implemented around the world, GNI believes proactive and honest multistakeholder conversations on this topic are key to ensuring that responses to digital harms are legal, proportionate, and fit-for-purpose. GNI looks forward to further consultations on the Citizens Protection Rules and other content regulation efforts.
The conversation was held under the Chatham House Rule. Nothing in this report is attributed to any individual, institution, or affiliation, nor does it necessarily reflect GNI’s position.