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October 15, 2019

Controlling content


October 15, 2019

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has stepped up its efforts to control the flow of what it considers objectionable material over social media sites. For this purpose, the authority has given access to its electronic portal to 32 federal and provincial government organizations to facilitate them in lodging complaints. The PTA is authorised to close down social media platforms which violate its rules, or in cases they are being hosted on servers located outside the country to ask the relevant company to remove the offending material. While many social media organizations have complied, the PTA is facing a tough time in persuading Twitter to do the same.

To spread awareness about what material is considered problematic the PTA has sent out 16 SMS alerts through all cellular networks operating in the country. The messages advise social media users to report blasphemy, pornography, terrorism and other unlawful content to the PTA on its portal. The cyber crimes wing of the FIA meanwhile deals with criminal offences committed over the internet such as the hacking of bank accounts. Advertisements have also been published in major national newspapers to create awareness about illegal content and encourage the public to report it. While some of the content mentioned by the PTA undoubtedly needs to be curbed, there are questions over other issues such as legitimate dissent – which is not a crime in most democracies. Considerable debate exists over this issue in other countries where social media has been blocked or websites taken down.

In Pakistan the process of using the PTA to block websites began during the Musharraf era and today seems to have picked up pace. The PTA has said it has been blocking material which is indecent, immoral, spreads hate, is anti-religious or blasphemous as well as that which hosts content against judiciary and the state. The Authority says it acts only on complaints from people or the government. However, it has a mandate to block any website containing controversial material. Distinguishing between free expression and controversial material can often be difficult task in today’s world. Those behind official policies need to recall that while acting against crime is an activity that must be encouraged, laying down too many barriers adds to the frustration of people who may wish to put forward opinion that differs from those with power or influence. The matter needs to be handled carefully, so that there is no feeling of oppression in the country and social media remains a forum that people can use to put forward their legitimate views.

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