Arab News | Saudi Arabia’s updated stance on regulating digital content platforms

Arab News | Saudi Arabia’s updated stance on regulating digital content platforms

This article was originally published in Arab News on 04 April 2022.

Last month, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, or CITC, issued a public consultation on the second draft of the Kingdom’s Digital Content Platforms Regulation. It followed the publication of the first draft and a brief open consultation in November 2021.

The updated regulation signals a shift in the Kingdom’s treatment of platform operators or service providers. And is a testament to the CITC’s responsiveness to comments submitted by the stakeholders following the November 2021 consultation.

For example, the definitions of platform operators under Article 2 were streamlined and simplified, articulating the improved benefit to the providers. The language has toned down and is far more cordial.

Platform operators or service providers outside the Kingdom can heave a sigh of relief with the CITC’s specifications in Article 10-1-2.

The article now states that “foreign service providers who do not possess at the date of application a commercial registration and/or foreign investment license in the Kingdom, may contact the CITC to further clarify the requirements to obtain a CITC license and status of the application upon submission.”

Similarly, the original emphasis on content moderation, lawful interception and takedown requests–see Article 6, first draft–was substituted with softer albeit vaguer language on “content, user protection, and personal data protection” in the updated Article 6-1.

Likewise, there is a mention to “comply with content regulations and rulings by competent authorities” in the updated Annex. These are calculated compromises on the part of the CITC, designed to align the regulation with standard regulatory practice.

However, it remains unclear if and how the CITC will enforce the local presence exemption highlighted in Article 10-1-2, noting the Kingdom’s bid to attract foreign companies and position itself as a regional tech hub.

Moreover, the updated tone on content moderation, lawful interception, and takedown requests will continue to cause a headache to the stakeholders, who are often guided by platform community standards and guidelines rather than specific local guidance.

Establishing a mechanism for flagging harmful content–in consultation with platform operators and service providers–is a more suitable alternative. This is perhaps why the second draft of the regulation mandates the appointment of a Platform Compliance Officer to represent the service provider in all official communications with the CITC and respond accordingly. However, it is unclear if the Platform Compliance Officer will have to be based in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the positive changes, updated Article 5 on the required regulatory tool–a mechanism through which the CITC issues licenses or authorization certificates for the content services within the Kingdom–will be met with mixed reactions.

While the general authorization categories were simplified and reduced to two types: license for satellite pay-TV platforms and IPTV platforms and registration for various on-demand and social-media platforms, the updated categories now mandate video sharing platforms such as TikTok, e-sports participation platforms such as Nintendo, and social media platforms such as Facebook by Meta to obtain a registration certificate from the CITC. The notification procedure for authorization was more straightforward in the first draft.

The updated Digital Content Platform Regulations continue to include a broad set of obligations and compliance requirements that require careful maneuvering. The stakeholders may have pleaded their case to the CITC’s public consultation, which closed on 24 March 2022.

The obvious next step is to push to reduce the obligations introduced, such as hefty annual fees ranging between SAR 800,000 or 0.2-0.5 percent of relevant revenues and vague content moderation requirements and reporting requirements.

The stakeholders can then hope that the CITC will consider these changes as it vies to further align the regulation with international best practices and boost the Kingdom’s attractiveness to foreign businesses.

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