Notices issued to government, Ministry of IT and PTA under the petition challenging Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020

August 17, 2020 – The Islamabad High Court (IHC) heard the writ petition challenging the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020.

The petition filed by Asad Baig, a journalist from Islamabad and the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, and moved by Advocate Usama Khawar and Advocate Mariam Farid Khawaja, raises concerns over the arbitrary powers being given to the National Coordinator under the Rules, and requests IHC to declare them ultra vires as they also directly violate the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information.

The petition also highlights that it is not the prerogative of the federal government to frame rules under Section-37 of PECA 2016 for removal, blocking or issuance of directions for removal or blocking of online content by the relevant authority.

The hearing, chaired by Chief Justice Athar Minallah, was also attended by the representatives of the federal government, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT), counsels of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). Justice Minallah questioned the creation of a parallel body, that is the National Coordinator, with overbroad powers granted under the Rules.

The petitioner’s counsels requested the Court to grant interim relief and suspend the Rules, PTA’s counsel informed the Court that the Rules are not going to be enforced until they are amended, as per the instructions by the Prime Minister Imran Khan. Justice Minallah warned the government of contempt if they were to resile from their commitment of non-enforcement of the Rules given under oath in the Court.

The Court has issued notices to the Federal Government, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication, and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 were notified on January 21 without the consultation with stakeholders. The Rules, formulated under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 and the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act, 1996, gives broad powers to the National Coordinator over social media content. Asad Baig, the petitioner says, “The assigning of broad powers to a body appointed by the Federal Government under the Rules point towards the authorities’ attempt to centralise power which is unlawful and unconstitutional. It directly threatens the democratic and political progress in the country.”

Earlier, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a coalition of fifteen technology-based companies, expressed concerns over the Rules that put unrealistic restrictions over their operations in Pakistan, and said that the Rules will make it ‘extremely difficult’ to ‘to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses”. The Coalition urged the government to ‘reconsider these rules’ calling them likely to be ‘detrimental to Pakistan’s ambitions for a digital economy’. The Rules demand that the social media companies localise their offices and servers in Pakistan, and prioritise government requests of content removal or access in decrypted and readable format over their own policies.

In August 2020, it was reported that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is officially setting up its offices in Pakistan for cloud computing services. A spokesperson for AWS told Profit that the company is making the move in order to remove regulatory and political blockers to cloud adoption. However, no official announcement has been made by the company.

Hija is the Senior Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She leads digital rights and internet governance advocacy at MMfD. Tweets at @hijakamran

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