Blocking websites unlawfully

After years of flagrant abuse of power, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has finally been called out on its practice of blocking websites in an ad-hoc, non-transparent manner with no opportunity to challenge its decisions.

The Islamabad High Court, on hearing a petition filed by the left-wing Awami Workers Party for the blocking of its website, ruled that the authority had blocked over 800,000 websites in violation of the statutory provision.

Through the PTA’s own admission, it was learnt that no rules had been established for the blocking of websites, despite having in place the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act since 2016 (PECA), which explicitly requires the regulatory body to do so. Sub-section 1 of Section 37 of PECA gives PTA the authority to block websites if the content contained therein is deemed to be against the glory of Islam, the integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, and morality or is in contempt of court. However, sub-section 2 of Section 37 states that, “the authority shall, with the approval of the federal government, prescribe rules providing for, among other matters, safeguards, transparent process and effective oversight mechanism for exercise of power under sub-section 1”.

Read more: “Cannot close our eyes to such actions”, says Justice Minallah hearing a case challenging website shutdowns

It was also uncovered that the PTA had blocked the AWP website on the recommendation of an intelligence agency. This finding, while alarming, is only to be expected, given the years of complaints and criticism by multiple stakeholders, including NGOs working on internet issues, members of civil society etc, as well as detailed investigations undertaken by local and international publications and organisations that have established the role of the agencies in controlling the internet in Pakistan.

In its detailed order, the court noted that given these circumstances, the PTA’s, “blocking of websites was indeed in violation of the principles of natural justice”. Such clarity on a contentious practice which amounts to the violation of basic rights to freedom of expression and the right to information is to be welcomed, even if over a decade late.

The court has now directed the authority to frame rules to govern the blocking of websites within a period of three months. It is to be hoped that the regulatory body takes on board all stakeholders in this process and utilises their input to finalise the mechanisms, without which — given the body’s tainted history — the newly established rules may result in even greater misuse and abuse of authority. This, in turn, will not allow any let-up in petitions being filed in the courts that would again have to correct the path that the state apparently wishes to take. In all of this, it is the ordinary citizens and businesses that will suffer.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2019

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