PTA holds second consultation committee meeting on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020; denotification not issued

March 10, 2020 — According to a press release by Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the authority held the second Consultation Committee meeting on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020. The first meeting was held on March 2.

The press release highlights that the Consultation Committee, formed under the guidance of the Prime Minister, held its second meeting on March 10 in Islamabad. The meeting was attended by the committee members along with the Minister of Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari and Barrister Ali Zafar.

Earlier, the Press Information Department of the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) shared that a Committee comprising of Mr. Amir Azeem Bajwa, Chairman PTA (Convener), Mr. Eazaz Aslam Dar, Additional Secretary MoITT, Ms. Tania Aidrus, Member of Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit, Prime Minister Office, Islamabad and Dr. Arslan Khalid, Focal Person to the Prime Minister on Digital Media, Prime Minister’s Office, Islamabad, was established to take on the task of consultation on the Rules.

The attendees of the second consultation meeting discussed ‘setting the clear objectives to be achieved from the Rules and Consultation process be focused on the attainment of desired objectives’. Furthermore, it also highlighted the committee’s decision of posting a questionnaire on PTA’s website to collect feedback on the Rules from stakeholders, along with the discussion on the meetings to be held with the stakeholders.

The press release on the subject by PTA dated March 2 on the first consultation meeting, states that “a broad-based, open consultation process with all stakeholders including civil society, human & digital rights groups, social media platforms (technology companies) & media etc. to solicit constructive input to address the concerns” is to be initiated immediately. According to the statement, “A questionnaire seeking input from all stakeholders will be posted on PTA website. A tentative schedule for consultation process will also be posted on PTA website.”

Sadaf Khan, Co-founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), says, “Both the statements fail to outline any detailed specifics of the discussion and do not mention the content of the said questionnaire or the process of the consultation, or more importantly the current status of the Rules.” She adds, “Despite civil society’s call for complete transparency in the process of the consultation, the authorities have not shared particulars of the discussions in these two meetings, pointing towards the government’s lack of interest in including stakeholders in the discourse and making the process, and subsequently the Rules, inclusive and in the interest of the citizens.”

Ministry of IT removes the Rules from its website

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) has removed the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 from its website. The removal of the Rules from the website was first noticed on February 29, but the government has not issued any notification about their status. This step is assumed to have been taken in response to the government’s announcement to halt the implementation of the Rules and open them for stakeholder consultation after they received valid criticism from the local and international community.

While this signals towards civil society’s efforts to ensure the authorities do not implement the Rules, however, the concern remains that the government has not yet denotified them, and removing them from social media only suggest making the copy unavailable for public to access.

Civil society demands denotification of Rules before consultation

On February 29, over 100+ civil society organisations and concerned individuals signed a statement demanding the government to denotify Rules immediately before any consultation process can begin. The statement called the government’s attempt to hold consultation without withdrawing Cabinet approval on the Rules an attempt to deflect criticism.

It further noted that civil society will not participate in any consultation process before the said withdrawal, and urged the authorities to address the “overbroad and arbitrary nature of Section 37 under which these Rules have been issued and review the abuse of power by the PTA and government in carrying out its functions since the enactment of PECA.”

PTA, in its clarification to this statement, claims, “such assertions are unfounded & in no way represent the reality.” It mentions that PTA has acted in accordance with the provisions of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. “PECA provides procedure for entertaining & processing of complaints with regards to blocking access to unlawful online content,” adding that any decision taken by PTA under S.37 of PECA can be submitted for review in the High Court, however, since the passage of the Act, only a handful of cases have been filed for review “which reflects that the process of removing illegal content is done in accordance with the law and there is no abuse of authority by PTA.”

A judgment of Islamabad High Court in 2019 ruled that PTA has no authority to censor or regulate online content under S.37 of PECA unless the authority formulates rules that it is advised to draft as per the said section.

Asad Baig, Co-founder and Director MMfD, says, “The denial of abuse of power has resulted in lack of transparency in the way the authorities attempt to regulate the internet. The resulting absence of accountability constantly affects the way policies are drafted, essentially excluding key stakeholders from transparent discussion around them.” He  adds, “The expectation of PTA to hold consultation through a questionnaire without withdrawing the approval of the Federal Cabinet on the Rules, and without actually holding stakeholder discussions, is clearly an attempt to dodge criticism and is a reflection of its lack of intention to amend them based on what is right for the internet and digital economy of Pakistan.”

A legal analysis of the Rules by MMfD (see here) suggests that they are not drafted in good faith, and will have direct implications on the civil liberties of the citizens of Pakistan on the internet. The Rules put disproportionate responsibilities on social media companies to register in Pakistan, setup local offices, and localise data servers in Pakistan to store country’s traffic. Further to this, the Rules also demand social media companies to provide or take down information as requested by the Pakistani authorities, non-compliance of which will result in the fine of 500 million Rupees. 

Social media companies, however, have collectively refused to comply with the Rules calling them ‘sweeping’, and stated “the rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” adding, “As no other country has announced such a sweeping set of rules, Pakistan risks becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy.”

Civil society organisations echoed the concerns, and also called upon the authorities stating, “The consultation must follow an open and transparent process. The committee must make public the agenda, process it intends to follow and clear timelines. All input provided should be minuted and put together in a report form to be disseminated for public feedback with a specified timeline which is reasonable, before which no Rules should be approved or enforced.”

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