In press release, NGOs say Pakistan must first withdraw rules and then initiate impartial consultations with all stakeholders
The non-governmental Digital Rights Foundation was among over 100 groups who on Sunday derided as eyewash the Government of Pakistan’s announcement to seek consultations with all stakeholders prior to implementing a controversial social media policy that has been discredited as draconian by critics.
In a press release issued on Sunday, the advocacy groups said the government’s latest move was a “mere token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input.” In addition to the Digital Rights Foundation, the statement has also been backed by organizations such as Bolo Bhi; the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development; Pakistan Bar Council; Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; Pakistan Press Foundation; Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists; Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan; Freedom Network; Awami Workers Party and others.
According to the press release, there can be no well-intentioned debate on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 without first clarifying the legal status of the rules. It said that the government’s decision to keep the rules in place while undertaking negotiations showed it was using “the consultation as a smokescreen while intending to implement and enforce the rules already prepared and approved.”
Going even further, the statement said the rules, in their current form, “merit no discussion at all.” It said that any conversation around the rules must first begin with the government addressing “abuse of authority” by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and government—“especially their misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to stifle dissent and Section 37 of PECA in particular to report and restrict political speech.”
The statement urges all social media companies that stand to be impacted by the government’s rules to “unequivocally state the terms of their engagement with the government on the rules,” pointing out that end-users can often have their rights trampled when tech companies enter into agreements with governments.
Per the statement, the groups require a certain number of conditions to be met for successful consultations on the social media rules. These include the federal cabinet withdrawing its decision to implement the rules as they stand now. In addition, it demands that Section 37 of PECA be repealed, noting the PTA often uses it to justify abuses of power.
The NGOs want the consultation process to be “open and transparent” and have demanded the government-appointed committee tasked to conduct dialogue make public its agenda, and the process it intends to follow and clear timelines.
Reacting to sharp opposition from citizens, Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced last week that the government would initiate consultations with stakeholders over the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. A government-appointed committee comprising PTA Chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa, additional secretary of I.T. Eazaz Aslam Dar, P.M. Office Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit member Tania Aidrus, focal person on digital media Arslan Khalid and human rights minister Shireen Mazari and barrister Ali Zafar was tasked with taking the discussion forward.
Earlier, the government’s social media rules—which stand to impact all “social media companies” including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—had been slammed as being harmful to the digital economy by the Asia Internet Coalition. The global body, which counts Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, Airbnb, Line, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, among others among its members said the rules circulated by the government made it difficult for global companies to operate. “The rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” read a letter by the association addressed to the P.M. Khan.
Under the new rules, all social media companies would be required to open offices in Islamabad; build data servers to store information, and take down content upon identification by authorities. Failure to comply with authorities in Pakistan within 15 days would invoke fines of up to Rs. 500 million and possible termination of services.