Media Matters for Democracy concerned at broadening of the scope of censorship through ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020’; urges the government to be cognisant of fundamental rights

(Islamabad, Pakistan)

Leading with a section that deems any content capable of creating “hatred, contempt or disaffection” against the government illegal, the recently notified ‘Removal and Blocking on Unlawful Online Content Rules’ (hereinafter ‘Rules’) create a framework that allows extensive censorship of digital spaces in Pakistan.

We find the Rules excessive in scope, contradictory in text, and detrimental to Pakistan’s digital growth, and therefore urge the government to take immediate and practical steps to ensure citizens that the implementation of these regressive and draconian Rules will be immediately suspended to undo the damage to Pakistan’s reputation and its potential to attract any investment in the digital market. 

We are highly concerned that these Rules create multiple obligations and liabilities on private sector players including Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Global Social Media Companies, compelling them to monitor, track, censor, and hand over users’ data to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on demand. These measures are akin to privatising censorship, and they pose a serious threat to the privacy of citizens, especially considering that data protection laws have still not been enacted in Pakistan. 

We remind the government that under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, law enforcement authorities cannot gain access to consumers’ data without getting a warrant from the court. By asking social media companies and ISPs to retain data and to provide decrypted, readable data of Internet users, these Rules go completely against the principle of fair investigation and trial and remain in contradiction of the parent Act. 

The government’s failure to respond to the concerns being raised by civil society and the private sector would create an environment that pushes big technology companies out of Pakistan, thereby creating serious harm for Pakistan’s digital economy and growth. 

It is highly unfortunate that the government has continued to deliberate and formulate these Rules without being transparent about the process. This secrecy has been a part of the process since January 2020 when the original draft of the rules was notified. The continued failure to be open about the process and the text of these Rules creates a deficit of trust. It also brings into question the credibility and transparency of the consultative process. 

Thus, we urge the government to;

– Immediately suspend the implementation of these Rules and initiate a meaningful consultative process that is credible, transparent, representative, and responsive to the concerns raised about the previous consultative process,

– Remain cognizant of the impact of any consequent rules and procedures on the practice of citizens’ fundamental and constitutional rights, and refrain from the implementation of any such rules and procedures which threaten rights granted under the Constitution of Pakistan and go against international standards regarding freedom of expression, right to privacy, and a fair investigative and judicial process,

– Respond to concerns highlighted by civil society organizations and local and global technology companies, and engage in a meaningful consultative process for any consequential rules and procedures,

– Be mindful of the potentially devastating impact on the digital economy before initiating steps for compliance by international social media companies, and ensure that any rules and procedures to regulate online content respond to the truly global nature of the Internet. 

Once again, we remind the Federal Government that it has been elected under a democratic mandate, and has a responsibility to adopt and strengthen democratic values. Any rules and procedures that explicitly create a mechanism to bar critiques of the government, allow regulatory bodies unfettered access to citizens’ data, and challenge the supremacy of the Parliament by attempting to legislate beyond the scope of the parent laws, are a threat to democratic values and undermine civil liberties significantly. 

We would also call upon all parliamentary parties to view this development as a demonstration of the flawed nature of Section 37 and of PECA 2016 itself. Thus, we urge the parliamentary parties to take this opportunity to initiate a parliamentary discourse on the draconian nature of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 — Section 37 in particular — and work together for necessary amendments in the PECA 2016 — including Section 37 — that are rooted in ideals of protection of human rights and civil liberties.