June 5, 2020 — The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has submitted a response to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)’s call for feedback on the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020. PTA began the consultation process after the civil society and technology industry criticised the shortcomings of the Rules, and their ability to infringe on internet users’ right to privacy and freedom of expression in Pakistan.
The AIC, which comprises twelve of the world’s biggest tech companies, in its submission addressed to the Chairman PTA General Asim Azeem Bajwa, appreciates PTA’s efforts to hold consultation on the Rules, and further highlights social media as “a key driver that can propel the actualisation of the Government of Pakistan’s Digital Pakistan initiative.”
The fifteen-pager document goes on to comment on while the intention to hold consultation is appreciated, the Rules need to be denotified by the Cabinet following the same process they were notified through. It mentions that the first version of the Rules would significantly alter the landscape for digital platforms companies, and would make it “extremely difficult” for them to operate in Pakistan. This concern was raised by the AIC in their February 17th statement as well.
The recent submission urges PTA to employ “credible, wide-ranging and transparent consultation process”, and recommends drafting a consultation paper that should seek extensive public policy input, and should aim to develop a “holistic public policy approach to deal with the issues at hand.”
AIC, in the statement, also encourages PTA to ensure that any Rules made under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 should fall strictly under the parent legislation, and not go beyond the scope of the Parent Act, a concern that has been highlighted in the Rules by various stakeholders. It also points out that while Section 37 of PECA under which the Rules have been drafted only grants PTA the power to block and remove online content, the Rules go on to outline the requirements of data localisation, access to user data, misinformation and data breach notifications, which should fall outside the scope of the consultation process. It also mentions the regulatory overlap between the Rules and the recently proposed Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) that also talks about data breach notification and storage of citizens’ data in the country.
The Coalition further mentions that the main objectives of Section 37 were absent from the Rules, suggesting that the PTA must address this omission in the stakeholder consultation process. Given a comment made on February 27th by the Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry, on his Twitter account about stringent policies in the UK that were never criticised by the Pakistani users, the AIC, interestingly, mentions a year-long process that the UK government followed before any decision would be made on the Online Harms White Paper in the country. AIC mentions, “Rather than rushing to legislate at this stage, the UK Government is recommending a series of further studies, to ascertain the methods to tackle online harms most effectively in practice.”
Sadaf Khan, Director Programs and co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “Although AIC does emphasise some really important points, it’s imperative to highlight that section 37 of PECA gives sweeping powers to PTA to censor online content; an authority that has been challenged in court in the past. The concerns regarding Section 37 remain, and the Rules only legitimise the unfettered powers given to the Authority on users’ data.” She adds, “However, I believe that highlighting the need to strictly follow the objective of the parent act and subsequent section is crucial, because the Rules currently give an impression of an independent legislation.”
Sadaf echoes AIC’s point of Rules being in alignment with the Parent Act, and reiterated that they should not supersede PECA. Instead, they should be withdrawn from the Cabinet through the same process they were notified, before a holistic consultation process begins.
Previously, civil society and digital rights organisations called the Rules “a direct threat to Pakistan’s digital economy and the citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy.” They also boycotted the consultation process suggested by the PTA on account of the Rules not being denotified by the Cabinet, and called the process an attempt to deflect from the various concerns with the Rules.