ISLAMABAD - Granting more powers to PTA to block blasphemous and hate material on social media and Internet, the government on Friday disbanded Inter-Ministerial Committee for Website Evaluation (IMCWE).

According to a handout from the Ministry of Information Technology, the prime minister, on the recommendation of the IT minister, approved the dissolution of the committee.

The decision was taken on the recommendations that due to the massive surge in scale and scope of content available over the Internet and resulting increase in frequency of relevant complaints, the effectiveness of the IMC mechanism was not sufficient to meet the increasing demand.

It was also suggested that there was a requirement of institutionalising sustainable web content management system and, being the regulator of licences, the authority was most suitable for the job.

As per new orders, PTA has been mandated to establish a mechanism for web content management. The authority would also safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens according to the Constitution in evaluation of complaints and decisions. To ensure effectiveness of the content management system, PTA will also adequately strengthen its web monitoring cell. According to officials, the IT Ministry will soon issue a directive to PTA for establishing this cell under its jurisdiction.

Experts say it is beyond PTA’s mandate under the existing act to undertake content management, so the government would have to change the PTA Act. The government officials are, however, of the view that after the PM’s approval IT Ministry can issue a directive to PTA for this new assignment.

Under the existing law, PTA’s functions include regulating the establishment, operation and maintenance of telecommunication systems and provision of telecommunication services in Pakistan, receiving and expeditiously disposing of applications for the use of radio-frequency spectrum, promoting and protecting the interests of users of telecommunication services in Pakistan, promoting the availability of a wide range of high quality, efficient, cost-effective and competitive telecommunication services throughout Pakistan.

The Islamabad High Court (IHC), while hearing a petition of a local NGO last year, restrained the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) from blocking websites until the conclusion of the case without the court’s approval

The petitioner took the plea before the court that IMCEW was constituted through an executive order in 2006 and since then the working of the committee has been non-transparent and dubious and there is no public record of its members, meetings or directives.

The petition contended that the IMCEW as an executive body had arbitrarily conferred upon itself the powers. It said the committee was prone to political hijacking and pressure and had been used to personal and political ends to stem undesirable and dissenting opinion.

According to Facebook’s recent transparency report, 1,773 pieces of contents were reportedly restricted by Facebook in compliance with the requests of the government of Pakistan, not only on grounds of blasphemy but also criticism of the state.

It is worth mentioning that despite the government resolve, many of the banned organisations have been active on the social media.

In the recent past, the PTA has been pleading that it has no mandate to block controversial material, while IMC showed helplessness by stating it could only block web content after receiving a written complaint.

Although new powers would be given to PTA, experts believe that Ministry of IT and PTA both lack the technology and human resources required to perform the technical job of fighting cyber terrorism with a proactive approach. Without a state-of-the-art software and human resource to develop/modify them, it would be a herculean task for PTA to effectively manage web content.