September 22, 2020

Civil society bodies declare the ‘rules for protection against online harm’ a political move to silence critics; demand immediate de-notification

February 13, 2020 – A joint statement issued and endorsed by a host of civil society groups and individual journalists highlights the potential harms of ‘rules for protection against online harm’ and urges the government to immediately de-notify them.

The statement was endorsed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Pakistan Press Foundation, Courting the Law, and Media Matters for Democracy, in addition to a number of journalists, lawyers, and other civil society representatives. 

Said statement was issued in response to the notification of new rules titled “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020” under the two Acts, The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996, and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT). The rules were notified on January 21, however, no public announcement was made.

The joint statement highlights the potential (negative) impact of these rules on Pakistan’s digital economy and the citizens’ fundamental rights, including the right to do business freely. The statement further states that rather than protecting citizens from online harm, these Rules stand to create significant harm by isolating Pakistani citizens from the global Internet.

“In addition to infringing upon the fundamental rights of citizens, these rules could result in a standoff between the Pakistani government and the social media platforms, and in a position when Pakistan’s digital economy is just about to take off, this is the worst thing that could happen”, says Asad Baig, the director of Media Matters for Democracy. “We really hope that better sense prevails and that the government de-notifies these rules immediately and work towards a more amicable solution to deal with online harm”, he added.

Rules can be accessed here.

According to the Rules, the social media companies will be required to register in Pakistan within three months from the passing of the rules i.e. January 21 and localise data and servers in Pakistan within twelve months in order to continue to operate in the country. The social media companies will also be required to comply with any and all requests including the provision of decrypted data on OTTA platforms. Non-compliance could result in the closure of services or a fine of up to five hundred million rupees.

The statement reads:

PUBLIC STATEMENT, CONDEMNING CITIZENS PROTECTION (AGAINST ONLINE HARM) RULES 2020

Islamabad, 13 FEBRUARY 2020: Given the current governments’ successive attempts to “tame” media and the Internet, and silence political opposition and critics through regressive, logistically impossible policies, we view the recently notified Rules on Citizens’ Protection (against online harm) 2020 as a direct threat to Pakistan’s digital economy and the citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. We are alarmed at this blatant attempt to exert total control over content not just being shared on public digital platforms but also on content being exchanged through private communication and messaging networks, defined as Over The Top Applications (OTTA) in the rules. 

 

We also remind the government that the scope and scale of action defined in the rules appear to go way beyond the mandate given under the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996) and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (XL of 2016). We remind the government that any body creating Rules under a law has to treat them as subordinate legislation and thus, the prescribed Rules cannot exceed the power of the parent Acts, i.e. the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996) and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (XL of 2016). 

 

We thus view the Rules as a direct and blatant overreach that creates additional legal liabilities going well beyond the scope of implementation of the parent laws. 

 

Furthermore, the policy itself is dictatorial and unresponsive to the global digital environment. We believe that rather than protecting citizens from online harm, these Rules stand to create significant harm by isolating Pakistani citizens from the global Internet. Therefore, we strongly urge the government to revise its decision to introduce Rules that do not just go beyond the mandate allowed in either of the two laws quoted as the basis of enactment of these rules but are also contrary to the promotion of a ‘Digital Pakistan’, which the government has often claimed to envision. In particular, we remain concerned that:

 

  1. The establishment of the office of National Coordinator (NC), the powers vested in the NC and its unnatural selection by a Federal Minister, all point towards the centralisation of power to exercise strict controls over digital and online narratives. This is anti-democratic behaviour and threatens the democratic and political progress in the country. 
  2. The responsibilities of Social Media Companies as defined in the Rules are invasive, impractical and non-responsive to the realities of the global digital media market. It is highly unlikely that any of the social media giants, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter would agree to comply with these rules, because:
    • Many of the requirements outlined in these Rules are contradictory to the legal liabilities and responsibilities incumbent upon these companies in the original countries of incorporation. For example, the data protection requirements under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would not allow any companies incorporated in the EU to comply with the excessive and incomprehensible data sharing requirements defined under 6 of the Rules. 
    • Some of the obligations outlined in these Rules appear to be asking the Companies to deploy a different set of technologies in Pakistan, an expectation that is simply incomprehensible and not likely to be met with a favorable response 
  3. The fact that the government has asked Social Media Companies to provide all and any kind of user information or data in a decrypted, readable and comprehensible format, including private data shared through messaging applications like WhatsApp, demonstrate that the government is neither concerned with the due procedure of the law that define mechanisms for gaining access to data of anyone being investigated for a charge under PECA 2016 nor is it concerned with the potential violations of citizens; fundamental right to privacy. 
  4. Threatening Social Media Companies with potential blocking of online systems demonstrate the extent of harm that these Rules can create. Blocking platforms like Facebook and services like WhatsApp wouldn’t just affect the online narratives – which the government appears to be determined to control – but would also have a direct and significant impact on the growth of the digital economy in Pakistan. 

The government also needs to revisit it’s the assumption that limiting access to all content critical of the government and its functionaries will somehow protect Pakistan’s national interest. All the actions that are being devised in an attempt to silence critics will only lead to the digital isolation of the local Internet users, creating irreparable harm to the political, democratic and economic development of the country.

 

We remind the government that it has been elected under a democratic mandate and has a responsibility to adopt democratic and progressive values. Actions like these do not only undermine citizen’s civil liberties but also create a hostile environment that stands to damage the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy. Thus, we strongly urge the government to de-notify these Rules and refrain from enacting policies that put Pakistan’s reputation and development at risk. 

 

Undersigned

 

Organisational Endorsements
Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD)
Bolo Bhi
Courting the Law
Digital Rights Foundation (DEF)
Institute of Research, Advocacy, and Development (IRADA)
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)
Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
Women in Media Alliance (WIMA)

Individual Endorsements
Adnan Rehmat, Media Development Professional
Afia Salam, Journalist, Journalist
Amber Rahim Shamshi, Journalist
Annam Lodhi, Journalist
Anooshay Shaigan, Lawyer
Asifa Idris, Journalist
Beena Sarwar, Journalist
Benazir Shah, Journalist, Journalist
Fahmida Yousfi, Journalist
Faiza Shah, Journalist
Farhan Janjua, Journalist
Fauzia Yazdani, Activist
Fazila Gulrez, Activist
Gulmeenay Sethi, Journalist
Muhammad Farooq, Journalist
Murtaza Solangi, Journalist
Imad Zafar, Columnist
Imrana Komal, Journalist
Nasir Zaidi, Secretary General Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)
R Umaima Ahmed, Journalist
Ramsha Jahangir, Journalist
Sameena Imtiaz, Journalist
Shazia Nayyar, Journalist
Shaziya Kiyani, Journalist
Sheema Siddiqui, Journalist
Tanzeela Mazhar, Journalist
Tehreem Azeem, Journalist
Xari Jalil, Journalist
Yashfeen Zafeer, Journalist
Yasmeen Aftab Ali, Journalist
Zafarullah Khan, Civic Educator
Zebunissa Burki, Journalist

Written by

Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran

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