Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash
On May 18, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) shared a survey to collect feedback on the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 that has been opened for broad-based consultation with stakeholders on the directives of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The form is shared through the PTA’s website, and can be accessed here.
The feedback form requires the person to register on the portal using personal information like the Name, Email Address, Phone Number, and National ID Card Number (CNIC). Once registered, it adopts a referendum-style format with options for Yes or No to select from, along with an optional text box underneath should the person want to “amplify and provide reasoning” for their choice of answer. This format leaves very little choice for the person to record their concerns on the already notified Rules by limiting feedback to only agreement or disagreement, without room for following a constructive consultation process.
The feedback form contains ten questions, each qualifying for a Yes or No answer. However, the nature of the questions all support the formulation of the Rules as they were drafted and notified earlier this year, disregarding the technicalities that a law should be taking into consideration early in the process.
Sadaf Khan, co-founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “It’s clear from the very beginning of the form that the authorities have attempted to limit the comments, and are not welcoming criticism or feedback constructively. For instance, the need to enter a CNIC or Passport number is the first indication that it categorically excludes those who want to file responses from outside of the country.” She adds, “This is not a research that could be done through a closed-ended survey. It’s the setting up of a law that will affect the internet and its usage in Pakistan.”
Sadaf maintains that MMfD has submitted its key concerns the first time the Rules were brought into light, and they were based on the condition of first denotifying the Cabinet approval before any consultation could happen. She says, “As part of civil society, our response remains the same.”
The Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 were first published for public consumption on February 11 when Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) acquired its copy through sources. According to the document, the Rules, made under two Acts, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 and the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act 1996, were notified on January 21 by the Cabinet, and were not made public before or after the notification until a copy was obtained through sources.
A statement by Media Matters for Democracy dated February 13, endorsed by concerned organisations and individuals, highlighted that they view the notified Rules as “a direct threat to Pakistan’s digital economy and the citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy.” Civil society organisations voiced their concerns on the Rules, and rejected any consultation unless they are first denotified.
Subsequently, MMfD submitted their key concerns, which can be found here, on the Rules, where they reiterated the aspects that will hinder people’s rights on the internet as and when the Rules go into effect.
In addition, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) – a consortium of 14 technology companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google, in their statement in response to the Rules, stated that the new rules introduced by the government would make it “extremely difficult” for AIC members to provide services to users within Pakistan. The statement warned that with these rules, Pakistan risks “becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy.”
In light of the criticism from civil society and technology companies, PM Imran Khan chaired a closed meeting on the Rules, and briefed the attendees to halt their implementation and to address key concerns of the stakeholders.
The Rules, as notified by the Cabinet and can be accessed here, required social media companies to register in Pakistan within 3 months, and localise the data servers within the geographical limits of Pakistan. They also mandated these platforms to prioritise content removal requests from the government over their own community guidelines. In addition, these Rules also direct the Ministry of IT and Telecom to designate a National Coordinator in an attempt to centralise power, which the MMfD, in its statement, identifies as anti-democratic and “threatens the democratic and political progress in the country.”