January 19, 2021

‘Corrected’ version of Rules appears; criticism of government unlawful no more

Islamabad, 1st December 2020: A ‘corrected version’ of Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020” has been uploaded on the website of Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications. In the file titled, ‘corrected version’, Section 4 (ii) of the Rules has been amended to discard text that termed content that could create hatred, contempt and disaffection for the government as unlawful.

In the amended version, Section 4(ii) defines integrity, security and defence of Pakistan as bearing “the same meaning as given under Article 260 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973”.

The previous version, published in the official gazette on 16th October stated that for the purposes of this act integrity, security and defence of Pakistan shall also include “dissemination of an information which intimidates or harms the reputation of Federal or Provincial Government or any person holding public office, established under the control of Federal or Provincial government or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Federal or Provincial Government”. In effect, if implemented, this text would have made any critique of the federal or provincial goverment or public officers unlawful.

Good, good news..

The amendment in the rules was made public by Federal Minister for Information Technology Syed Aminul Haque in a TV program aired on Aaj TV. Haque said that the government had amended the Gazetted rules on November 27th, 2020. Haque said that this amendment was ‘a good good news for all social media users and digital rights activists’.

“Section 4(ii) was one of the most concerning sections of the rules, so obviously its amendment is good, but first, the good news doesn’t really address most of the concerns that have been raised about the rules. Secondly, one can’t help but wonder that if there is recognition that the amendement is such a good news, what was the original text doing in the draft in the first place? Was the government simply testing waters to see how much regression they can get away with” says Sadaf Khan, a digital rights activist,

Concerns about lack of transparency

Activists have also continued to raise concerns about lack of transparency.

“This appears to be a theatre of the bizarre. Despite various statements by local and global bodies, various attempts to receive a formal response from the Ministry and the regulator, there was complete and utter silence on these rules. And suddenly, an amended version has appeared with apparently a single amendment. Did this amendment happen in the Cabinet? If the amendment has been made on the basis of concerns raised by civil society and industry, why just this one amendment? Why no word on the various other issues that have been raised?” asks Asad Baig, founder Media Matters for Democracy, “If an amendment was made, wouldn’t it have been prudent to actually upload a press release or a formal announcement instead of announcing this five days after the new notification was made?”

Activists have consistently raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the procedure followed.

In addition to the concerns about freedom of expression and privatisation of censorship, both civil society groups and industry bodies have raised concerns about localisation requirements, powers beyond parent laws and privacy concerns driven from requirements to hand over decrypted data to the regulator.

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