Over the last five years, Pakistan has introduced various measures aimed at regulating terrorist content online, including the 2020 Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules which directly targets content posted on social media, and the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act which prohibits use of the internet for terrorist purposes.

These regulations supplement the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 (ATA) that provides the baseline legal framework for counterterrorism measures in the country. The ATA does not specifically target terrorist use of the internet, however, it considers the dissemination of digital content “which glorifies terrorists or terrorist activities” to be an offence – under section 11W. The same section also prohibits the dissemination of content that incite to hatred or “gives projection” to a terrorist actor.

Pakistan’s regulatory framework:

Main bodies overseeing online regulation:

Key takeaways for tech platforms:

  • Via the PECA and 2020 Citizen Protection Rules, Pakistan explicitly prohibits terrorist use of the internet, and terrorist content shared on social media.
  • Under the 2020 Rules, Social media platforms would:
    • be asked to remove or block access to unlawful content when notified by the relevant authorities
    • have to register and have a physical office in Pakistan
    • establish database centers in the country within 12 months, to record and store data and online content
  • Companies that fail to abide by the 2020 Rules can be blocked from operating in the country or face detrimental fines.
  • Under the PECA, individuals posting terrorist material online can also be held liable and face jail terms.

2020: an attempt a directly regulating social media content

In 2020, the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, specifically targeting content hosted on social media platforms, was enacted. These Rules aims at curbing harmful online content, including terrorist and extremist content, as well as hate speech and misinformation.

The Rules require social media companies to remove or block access to “unlawful” material when requested to do so by a newly created “National Coordinator” authority. Social media companies will thus be obliged to respond to a request, from the PTA or the National Coordinator,  by removing material deemed “unlawful” within 24 hours, or six hours in emergency cases. They will have three months to register with authorities in Pakistan and must have a physical presence in the country. When required to so, the companies will have to provide subscriber information, traffic data, content data and any other information or data sought by the authorities. Companies that do not comply with the new regulation risk being blocked online and face a fine of over 3,000,000 US dollars.  

This new regulation has drawn criticism from civil society groups due to what they argue are risks regarding freedom of expression. Media Matters for Democracy, a Pakistani non-governmental organisation, called the rules a “direct threat to Pakistan’s digital economy and the citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy”. Article19 has also raised concerns regarding the requirement to deploy “’proactive measures’ to ensure the prevention of livestreaming on their platforms of any content in breach of any law or rules in force in Pakistan”, which risks amounting to “prior censorship”.  In particular as, under this requirement, terrorist and extremist content is being mentioned as content of “special concern” without being defined in reference to any existing legislation in the country. Article19 is also concerned with such proactive measures being synonymous to automated filters, which risks the removal of lawful content.

Criticisms at the Rules – including a letter from the Asia Internet Coalition reporting that there is a risk of major tech companies pulling out of Pakistan if the rules were enforced – led the government to suspend and reconsider the rules, conducting an “extensive and broad-based consultation process with civil society and technology companies.”

A petition has also been filed before the Islamabad Hight Court, challenging the Rules on the ground that it is not the prerogative of the federal government to frames rules under the PECA for removal or blocking of online content. The petition was scheduled to be heard by the Court in August.[1]

A direct and comprehensive prohibition of terrorist use of the internet

These Rules were promulgated under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Passed on 11 August 2016, this legislation is meant to provide a regulatory framework for “the prevention of electronic crimes, more specifically to “prevent unauthorised acts with respect to information systems, and to provide for related offences as well as mechanisms for their investigation, prosecution, trial and international cooperation”. Beyond electronic crimes, the bill has been labelled as a “flagship” legislation for Pakistan counterterrorism efforts due to its direct prohibition of terrorist use of the internet. Indeed, the act prohibits the use of information systems for the glorification of terrorism, “recruitment, funding, and planning of terrorism”, as well as cyberterrorism and hate speech. Depending on the offence, individuals can be sentenced to up to 7 or 14 years (for cyberterrorism) of prison, or a fine of over 70,000 euros.  

However, the PECA has been criticised by human rights activists and civil society groups for what they deem to be an overly broad language on what constitutes illegal content, and for granting regulators, the Pakistan Telecommunication Agency, a certain leeway in deciding what is to be considered illegal content. According to critics, this bears the risks of users self-censoring their online speech. This has led certain human rights activists to criticise the law for the risk it poses to freedom of expression and users’ privacy.

Civil society groups have also raised concerns regarding the broad jurisdiction the PECA aims to cover, as it also targets electronic crimes committed by Pakistani nationals outside of the country. An international aspect of the bill that, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “could have practical consequences for the thousands of overseas Pakistanis working in the IT and infosecurity industries, as well for those in the Pakistan diaspora who wish to publicly critique Pakistani policies.”

[1] At the time of writing, there is still a lack of clarity on the status and enforcement of the Rules.

Resources:

Article19 (2016), “Pakistan: An Analysis of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015”,

Article19 (2020), “Pakistan: Online Harms Rules violate freedom of expression”

Asia Internet Coalition (2020), “AIC Submits Response to Pakistan’s Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm)”

Committee to Protect Journalists (2020), “Pakistan government secretly passes strict social media regulations”

CPU Media Trust (2020) “Pakistan government secretly passes strict social media regulations”

Digital Rights Foundation (2020), “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020: Legal Analysis”

Digital Rights Foundation (2020b), “DRF Condemns Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 as an Affront on Online Freedoms”,

Digital Rights Monitor (2020), “Civil society bodies declare the ‘rules for protection against online harm’ a political move to silence critics; demand immediate de-notification”

Farrell Nick (2020), “How Big Tech defeated Pakistan’s censorship police”

Garg Aryan (2020), “Pakistan’s Online Harm Rules: Rights to Privacy and Speech Denied”, Jurist.org

Global Network Initiative (2020), “GNI Expresses Serious Concern Regarding Pakistan’s Rules Against Online Harm

Kaye David, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (2015), “UN expert urges Pakistan to ensure protection of freedom of expression in draft Cybercrime Bill”, UN OHCHR

O’Brien Danny (2016), “The Global Ambitions of Pakistan’s New Cyber-Crime Act”, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Pakistan Today (2020), “Cabinet approves new rules to regulate social media”

Phoneworld (2020), “Government to Review Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”

Reuters (2016), “Pakistan passes controversial cyber-crime law”

Shahzad Asif (2020), “Pakistan’s government approves new social media rules, opponents cry foul” , Reuters