December 17, 2018

Special PTA Wing comprising of ‘IT graduates’ tasked with the take-down of blasphemous content; regulator finds removing terrorism related content cumbersome

ISLAMABAD: A 25 member Internet Policy and Web Analysis Wing, IP&WA of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been working to take down online content.

This wing was established was established in the wake of recent Islamabad High Court (IHC) orders to crackdown against online blasphemous content.

According to PTA Spokesperson Khurram Mehran, the 25-member wing is headed by DG Nisar Ahmed and managed by Assistant Director Khalid Wazeer. The rest of the members are IT graduates that have been hired on a contractual basis. However, when asked about the hiring procedure and the operational details of the IP&WA, the spokesperson said that the Interior Ministry had directed PTA to keep these details confidential owing to the ‘sensitivity of the issue’.

A complaint procedure for blocking content
According to the spokesperson, PTA would not be actively blocking content on its own. Rather, it would depend on public complaints to initiate action. Once a complaint is received, the Authority would reach out to relevant government agencies and respond to the complaint after consultations. The spokesperson, Khurram Mehran, will also serve as director complaint and will be routing the public complaints received.

The authority to block content has been given to PTA under section 37 of Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, PECA, that allows it to censor content “if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.”

According to PECA, any aggrieved party can file a review application with PTA within 30 days of blocking of content. Furthermore, an appeal in High Court could be filed within thirty days of PTA’s review decision. However, the exact procedure for appeal is yet to be made clear.

Challenges remain
While IP&WA focuses on blasphemous content, sources within PTA admit facing challenges when it comes to taking down content related to terrorism. Sources say that the slow ‘content takedown’ process of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, “has made it difficult to block terror related content”.

Earlier, PTA and FIA officials informed members of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security , that many government officials found it a laborious task to request Facebook and Twitter for content takedown, as the corporates required reasons why the content had to be blocked. The officials told the committee that at times, the officers concerned attached the UN Security Council list of banned organisations along with their applications to justify their requests. However, most of the officials simply would not pursue the process for being too cumbersome. PTA representatives also told the committee that a lack of resources made it difficult for them to follow up on every complaint with Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, sources within PTA revealed that a dedicated Cyber Security Wing to censor online ‘terrorism’ content was being set up. In this regard, the vacancies for the post of Director and Assistant Director had already been advertised.

However, it is not clear when this wing would be made operational.

Digital Rights Concerns
Expressing concern at the composition of the IP&WA, Media Matters for Democracy’s Executive Director Asad Baig noted that the aforementioned wing was against the internationally recognized principle of ‘multistakeholderism’.

“The concept suggests that decisions related to Internet, since they affect everyone in a society, should be made in a truly multi-stakeholder manner,“ he explained.

Asad lamented that instead of engaging different stakeholders including civil society members through IP&WA, computer science graduates were hired to perform the job.

He also emphasised that online censorship was a slippery slope especially when content did not clearly violate local laws and was being taken down merely ‘on a suspicion’ or more sinisterly in the guise of ‘nationalism or patriotism’ but in reality to curb free expression.

Rights activists have long expressed concern at the role of PTA in censoring content. Sadaf Khan of Media Matters for Democracy in this regard said, “PTA being an executive body doesn’t have the jurisdiction to interpret the language or the legal terms of the constitution of Pakistan and act upon them. That’s a clear case of breach of authority”.

She further said that there was no transparency in the process. “We never know which websites are being blocked and for what purpose and whether or not they had violated any laws. PTA never issues a list of blocked websites, so unless its a popular website, there is no way of knowing to what extent PTA is censoring the internet”.

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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