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Explainer: Internet Censorship Rules In Pakistan

A month before the General Elections of 2018, the Awami Workers Party website was blocked. On April 24, 2018 Twitter account of activist Manzoor Pashteen appeared to be suspended. Journalist Taha Siddiqui was notified in November 2018 by Twitter that one of his tweets was flagged by the Pakistan Government for being in violation of Pakistani law. Stories like this are not uncommon in Pakistan where a stringent regulatory regime exists.

The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 allow for the regulation of “active opposition to the fundamental values of Pakistan” and of content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities” of the nation. With these open-ended ambiguous terms, the proposed Rules award discretionary powers to the PTA that transgress constitutionally guaranteed rights and disregard accountability and transparency in practice.

Grievances stem from two grounds: infringement of safeguards guaranteed in constitution and particularly, the mechanism of enforcement, often the ‘penalties through PTA’, as co-founder of rights group Bolo Bhi, Freiha Aziz mentions.

Bolo Bhi’s special piece, “The Perils of PECA: Democratic New Rules for Online Content Regulation in Pakistan?” counters the ‘false [government] claim that it happens everywhere’ according to Freiha Aziz. Content filtering and restriction attempts have also impacted the availability of academic, medical, and cultural content.The policy brief on censorship regime in Pakistan puts new rules of 2020 and PECA rules of 2016 in a comparative perspective; the  “[c]ontent management powers” given to the PTA under Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, enhanced in new Rules, mandating it to block and restrict access to information online rather unchecked, arbitrarily.

The government, through PTA, routinely makes requests to companies to restrict content and comply with local laws. According to Bolo Bhi policy brief, Facebook’s Jan-June 2014 transparency report revealed 1,773 pieces of content were restricted by the company in compliance with Pakistan government requests. The category of content did not include just blasphemy but also “criticism of the state”. As per Google’s transparency report, Pakistan reported 11,775 items for removal since 2009 in response to which 996 items were removed up until December 2019. Similarly, Twitter’s transparency report for January to June 2019 shows that Pakistan made 273 requests to remove content specifying 1,798 accounts. The government contended companies would establish offices in Pakistan, so that Section 37 would be applicable to them; but four years on, no company have done so.

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Another Government approach is to block media websites if they do not comply. Recently, TikTok was banned due to issue of ‘cultural sensitivities’. previously, in 2010, Facebook was banned due to a blasphemous caricatures page. In September 2012, YouTube was blocked in Pakistan and the ban was eventually lifted in 2016, after YouTube launched a .pk domain. “Digital rights groups raised their concerns, voiced earlier too, about localisation becoming a one-stop shop for censorship,” highlights Bolo Bhi report. The issue of localisation of social media rules continues to persist. As rules vary within companies, sometimes companies comply with local laws and address Government concerns and sometimes, they don’t. For instance, Twitter accounts for content regulatory [local] rules and is more likely to comply with requests to do so. On the other hand, when Facebook was requested to remove the ‘blasphemous’ page, the company restricted its viewing in Pakistan instead rather than removing the page altogether.

Ironically enough, the new rules does not account for the “harm” to freedom of speech caused by the state. Bolo Bhi’s special brief, Pakistan’s Online Censorship Regime, notes: “Documented abuse of Section 37 of PECA, under which the CP Rules 2020 were promulgated, raise strong concerns regarding censorship, suppression of dissenting views, and curtailment of freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution… While “blasphemous” and “pornographic” content was usually presented as the justification for such bans and to accrue content restriction powers and tools, political speech was targeted.”

The Citizens Protection Rules came under immense criticism from not only domestic but international journalists and human rights organizations. “In February, a statement signed by over 100 organisations and individuals, called for the Rules to be withdrawn by the Federal Cabinet. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) released a statement asking the government to “reconsider” the Rules. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) expressed “serious concern” through a statement.

In addition to constitution’s violation, by and large, website blocking has been arbitrary and non-transparent which is far more contentious. An order of the IHC in September 2019 held that it was PTA’s statutory duty to “prescribe and notify rules in order to structure and regulate its powers under Section 37 of PECA and to ensure transparency. The court directed PTA to prescribe and notify rules under Section 37(2) at the earliest.” While new Rules were framed, they were not as instructed by the court requiring mandatory due process requirements to be met. Instead, they came in the form of the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, going well beyond what Section 37 permits and awarding even more discretionary powers, rather than regulating PTA’s functions.

The Rules bypass Article 19 that permits “reasonable restrictions” on freedom of speech, and also undermine the right to online privacy and data protection in contravention of Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees privacy. Civil rights groups have been calling for enforcing constitutional safeguards, consultations with stakeholders, and for a nuanced public discourse to address grievances through proper checks and balances’ approach in enforcement mechanism.

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Naya Daur