Cabinet approves ordinance to amend cybercrime law: Fawad

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said on Saturday that the federal cabinet had given the approval for a presidential ordinance to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016.

He said the approval for the ordinance was obtained through circulation. The minister said under the amendments, defaming individuals on social media would be declared a punishable offence and courts would be obliged to give a verdict on cases registered under PECA within six months.

Chaudhry shared this earlier in a tweet as well, saying that the federal cabinet’s approval had been sought for the amendments.

PECA was passed by the National Assembly in 2016 amid the opposition’s protest.

The PML-N, which was in the government at the time, had used its majority to bulldoze the controversial bill. The opposition, meanwhile, criticised the legislation for giving the executive what it called sweeping powers that could be misused against anyone and further curb freedom of expression in the country.

The legislation stated that parody or satire-based websites and social media accounts can be proceeded against on ‘spoofing’, which makes it an offence to run a website or send information with a “counterfeit source”.

It also authorised Federal Investigation Agency officers to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other device that may be required for the purpose of investigating a crime or offence, and said that defamation would be treated as a punishable offence.

In November 2020, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government framed social media laws under PECA, drawing criticism from digital rights activists, the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan and the Asia Internet Coalition, who had termed the laws draconian.

Tech companies had also threatened to discontinue their services in Pakistan if the rules were not amended, saying the regulations would make it difficult for them to continue their operations.

The rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). During one of the hearings on the petition, the attorney general had assured the IHC that the government was ready to review the rules.

In March 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan had constituted an inter-ministerial committee to review the controversial social media rules.

The committee had prepared the rules by August and they were passed by the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases on September 23.

The federal cabinet had approved the amendments to digital media rules on September 29 and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication had notified them on November 14.

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021, allowed the telecom regulator in the country to block any website or platform on the directives of court and federal government or under any law.

In a statement issued at the time, IT and Telecom Minister Aminul Haque had said under the rules, social media companies would have to abide by Pakistani laws and the rights of social media users.

He had said there would be a ban on the live streaming of extremist, terrorist, hateful, obscene and violent content, and “social media companies will be liable to remove content against Pakistan’s integrity and defence.”

As per the rules, the propagation of “immoral and obscene content” will also be a punishable offence, Haque had said.

“No negative content concerning any individual will be uploaded,” Haque had said, adding that uploading material about someone’s private life would also be banned.

Other things banned under the revised rules include “content against Pakistan’s cultural and moral trends” as well as content that could “destroy” the morals and harm the mental and physical development of children.

The minister had said the rules would apply to all social media outlets including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Google. He had added that after the issuance of the notification, the social media companies would be required to set up their offices in Pakistan “as soon as possible”.

Social media companies were asked to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months of the law coming into force and to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same time-frame. These officers have to address complaints within seven working days.

The rules also direct social media companies to establish an office in Pakistan, preferably located in Islamabad, upon PTA’s directions “as and when feasible”. Previously, the rules required the companies to set up their offices within nine months.

Internet companies had criticised the amended version as well, noting that the most problematic provisions remained unchanged in the new draft that they said had in fact “regressed” in comparison with previous versions.

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