National Coordinator under Citizen Protection Rules to be designated for implementation and multi-stakeholder consultation – IT Secretary briefs NA committee

2nd March 2020, Islamabad: Federal Secretary, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication Shoaib Siddiqui revealed that the National Coordinator would be designated under the Citizen Protection (against online harms) Rules 2020, for implementation and consultation on the rules. The IT Secretary was briefing NA’s Standing Committee on Information Technology about the recently notified Rules. Secretary IT’s revelation that the consultations on the rules would be done by the National Coordinator, who is yet to be appointed, brings in question the mandate of the consultative committee that was announced on 28th February 2020, to start consultative process on the Rules.  

The Citizen Protection (Against Online Harms) Rules 2020 appeared online on 12th February 2020 and have drawn heavy criticism from within and outside Pakistan. 

Contradicting accounts

Secretary IT also gave different statements about the drafting of the Rules, first saying that the Rules has been drafted by the Inter-ministerial Committee under the end of Secretary Law & Justice. Confusingly, he also added that the new rules were drafted by technical experts in in the IT Ministry and the consultative team included one additional secretary who is an electrical engineer by profession. Adding another name to the alleged list of drafters, he also added that the law ministry had drafted the rules in consultation with PTA, FIA’s Cyber crime wing and other stakeholders. However, it is important to note that the Chairman PTA had previously said that the Authority had not received a formal notification about the Rules.  

The IT Secretary was not able to share any details about the designation of the National Coordinator and simply said that the NC had not yet been appointed due to the absence of  Federal Minister Information Technology. He held that the Rules are not meant to have an impact on citizen’s freedoms, are formed under existing laws and criticism against the rules is propaganda being done to gain popularity. 

Oppositions’ reaction

Pakistan Peoples’Party (PPP) MNA Naz Baloch condemned the Siddiqui’s assertion and said that instead of empowering FIA, the government is creating a new controlling office. She said that the government made use of social media when they were in opposition and are now enacting a National Coordinator as they cannot tolerate criticism. She asked the Secretary to provide details about the National coordinator and shared concerns about the possible impact of the Rules on digital economy. She said that the whole social media is being handed over to a single man, what would happen to freedom of expression? She asked IT Ministry to explain how any fine would be imposed on the social media companies and who would bear the expense of national coordinator. She said that we don’t want our data to be given to anyone, referring to a section of the Rules that require social media companies to hand over decrypted and readable data to National Coordinator, including data from private messaging applications like WhatsApp. 

Regulator’s briefing 

Chairman PTA, Major General (Retd) Amir Azeem Bajwa said that there was no way to stop fake news spreading propaganda against the state. He said that if Twitter and Google cooperate then they can find out the IPs used to set up fake accounts. He said that Twitter only complies with 29% of the requests initiated by PTA while other platforms comply with 60 – 70% of the requests. 

Other committee members also shared their reservations with the Rules, the process of their enactment and their potential impact. Committee member, PPP MNA Shamim Ara asked what impression would be sent to the world if the social media platforms were closed in Pakistan? BNP MNA Mr. Muhammad Hashim held that banning social media is not a solution to the problem and it would complicate matters further. 

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