The Year in Review: Digital Rights in Pakistan

Photo by Cities for Digital Rights

As the year 2019 comes to an end, we look back at key developments in digital rights and Internet governance arenas. Where teledensity and internet subscription is constantly increasing in the country, it becomes essential for the government to express explicit interest in creating safe digital spaces for the citizens.

The government of Pakistan has repeatedly stated that it has an interest in the digital innovation in the country, and subsequent in regulating it as well. In December 2019, the government announced its new initiative ‘Digital Pakistan’, a plan that includes initiation of various policy and regulatory mechanisms, to improve the national digital framework. While this digitisation is essential, it’s also crucial to monitor and document on policy developments to ensure that the developments remain responsive to human rights considerations.

In 2019, there have been significant developments in terms of regulations and policies on digital rights in Pakistan. Here is a brief overview of significant developments in policies related to digital rights and internet governance in Pakistan.

Privacy and Data Protection

1) Data Protection

Pakistan has witnessed its fair share of privacy violation and breach of data protection. With countless data breaches both of private database and that held by the government has continued to put citizens’ data, and ultimately their security, at risk. Despite being home to 200 million people, Pakistan still doesn’t have a data protection regulation. The last draft of what the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) says Personal Data Protection Regulation (PDPB) was posted on its website in 2018, and since then there has been no progress despite constant consultations and meetings with civil society. Meanwhile, data breaches continue to happen.

Some of the significant data breaches of 2019 include,

    • The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) admitted that the data of passengers traveling to Pakistan was leaked by the travel agents and civil aviation personnel before the passengers reached the mobile registration counters to register their new mobile phones. The government of Pakistan made registration of mobile phones mandatory for every citizen. And while the first phone carried from abroad into the country was not charged custom duty, when people reached the counters, they were told that they already have a mobile phone registered under their name, and were made to pay custom duties on their phones.

    • Photos of drivers that were taken through Punjab’s Safe Cities project were leaked, that were later used to harass the drivers identified via their car’s registration number.

    • Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) confirmed breach and leak of sensitive data of passengers traveling to Pakistan at the hands of travel agents and civil aviation officials, in order to register phones on their identity under the government’s new regulation that makes registration of every phone entering the country mandatory against a duty charge. While the first phone under a person’s name was registered duty-free, passengers whose data was leaked were forced to pay the duty regardless.

    • Multiple data leaks of social media platforms that potentially involved Pakistani citizens’ data as well.

    • Videos of couples in a cinema in Lahore were recorded via CCTV cameras that the people were unaware of. The videos were subsequently leaked, highlighting the lax data protection protocols of the cinema.

In the light of these incidents of violation of privacy and citizens’ data protection, Media Matters for Democracy wrote to the Prime Minister Imran Khan to request him to prioritise a data protection regulation that aims to protect citizens and their information against the aforementioned events that have the potential of posing severe threats of their safety. A petition for the same was also submitted to the Senate of Pakistan.

2) Privacy

Privacy is acknowledged as a fundamental right of Pakistani citizens under Article 14: Inviolability of dignity of man, etc. of the Constitution. However, there have been laws, policies and events where this right has repeatedly been infringed on various levels without accountability. While the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, or simply the cybercrimes law, was passed to protect users of the internet and their rights, the law continues to stifle civil liberties and affect their right to privacy.

Here’s a review of reported violations and developments on privacy policy in 2019:

  • Violations
    • Sindh CTD steps up monitoring of social media to prevent spread of ‘hatred, militancy’.
      The police authorities in Sindh announced developing a technical team under its anti-terror wing that started monitoring all digital platforms amid their growing use for “promotion of ideology of hatred, anti-state activism and militancy,” a senior official said.

      Source: [Dawn]

    • FIA watching social media to curb ‘anti-national propaganda, hate speech’.
      The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is claimed to have put in place a monitoring system following the government directives about a crackdown against those spreading extremism and hatred on social media and said it would not wait for any complaint to take action against any individual or group as legally it can take cognizance against anyone for “committing such an offence’.

      Source: [Dawn]

    • Not investigating CCTV footage leak from Lahore’s cinema: FIA Cyber Crime Wing.
      Federal Investigation Authority is not investigating CCTV footage leaked from a cinema in Lahore. Director Cyber-Crime wing Afzal Mehmood told Digital Rights Monitor that FIA’s cyber-crime has a complaint based mechanism and only takes action when an aggrieved party makes a complaint.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

    • More data leaks, more arrests, no data protection.
      In a briefing to the standing committee of the senate on information technology and communication the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) revealed that their cyber-crime wing has arrested mobile phone importers, tour guide operators and FIA officials posted at airports in relation with a massive data leak of passport details to register new cell phones being brought into the country.

      The need for a data protection law has become even more apparent, with similar sensitive data leaks from government databases such as Nadra’s data and pictures from the safe cities project camera.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

    • Concerns over new govt plans to monitor online traffic.
      The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) recently directed the telecom industry to deploy a suitable technical solution for monitoring, analysing and curbing grey traffic.

      The system would be called Web Monitoring System (WMS) in order to monitor communications for the purposes of national security, measure and record traffic, call data record, and quality of services as specified by the PTA.

      Source: [Dawn]

    • Pakistan outsources the web monitoring system to a controversial Canada-based company.
      Pakistan has acquired the services of a controversial Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system,” Coda Story can reveal.

      Sandvine is expected to provide equipment for monitoring and analyzing all incoming and outgoing internet traffic from Pakistan. The agreement raises serious concerns about privacy and civil liberties in Pakistan

      Source: [Coda Story ]
  • Policy Related Developments
    • NA committee asks NCHR to suggest changes in law on electronic crimes

      The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights requested the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) to give suggestions to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to pre-empt misuse of the law.

      The request was made after the committee heard a journalist, Shahzeb Jillani, who recounted his ordeal after registration of a case by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) over a tweet.

      Source: [Dawn]

    • MMfD submits petition to the Senate of Pakistan to expedite legislation to protect citizen’s privacy

      Responding to the continuing threats to citizen’s constitutional right to privacy, Media Matters for Democracy has submitted a petition to the Senate of Pakistan, requesting the Chairman Senate and Chairpersons of Senate Standing Committees on Information Technology and Telecommunications and Chairperson Senate Standing Committees on Human Rights to take immediate actions to expedite pending legislative matters for the enactment of a strong and pro people data protection and privacy law.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

    • Bilawal expresses frustration at FIA’s failure to report to Parliament on PECA’s implementation

      The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights held a meeting, under the Committee Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

      He expressed frustration at FIA for not submitting report on PECA. FIA is bound to submit its report on PECA laws after six months, however failed to submit even a single report in the parliament, he added.

      Bilawal Bhutto Zardari further accused FIA of being active only when it came to harassing politicians, journalists, and civil society activists and lamented the state of human rights in Pakistan.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

    • Senate Committee on Information Technology Calls For Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties For Cybercrimes Investigation

      Pakistan needs to urgently sign Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) with foreign countries for the investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes related to child sexual abuse, according to the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication.

      The committee meeting was chaired by Senator Rubina Khalid on Monday at the Parliament House.

      Committee members were briefed by Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials on the child pornography rings operating on the Dark Web, in the context of the recent Sohail Ayaz case.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

    • Petition filed to challenge government’s inability to uphold right to privacy in Pakistan

      The Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued notices to the Federal Government, under a petition titled “S. Khan Vs Federation of Pakistan”. The petition aims to challenge the government’s inability to uphold citizens’ right to privacy granted under Article 14: Inviolability of dignity of man etc, of the Constitution of Pakistan. The petition questions, in general, various projects by the government and corporations that infringe on citizens’ privacy, and in particular, the video surveillance through CCTV cameras and mobile and spy cameras.

      Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

Cybercrime Laws

Cybercrimes are identified and criminalised under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) passed in 2016. This Act remains one of the most discussed and contested pieces of legislation pertaining to technology in Pakistan. And despite being passed and implemented as a law, experts argue that it has one too many loopholes that need to be amended in order for it to protect the civil liberties of people, and contribute what it’s intended to do – curb cybercrimes.

Since its passage in August 2016, authorities have struggled to resolve various challenges that have an impact on its implementation.

Major reported developments related to PECA’s implementation include:

  • 15 police stations set up to deal with cyber crime: Senate told

    Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan apprised the Senate that around 15 police stations had been set up across the country to deal with cyber-crime.

    Source: [The Nation]

  • FIA having difficulty obtaining data in cybercrime cases, NA body told

    A parliamentary committee was informed on Monday that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was facing difficulty getting the required data from managements of social media sites to investigate cases of cybercrime, security and objectionable material.

    Briefing a meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication, with Ali Khan Jadoon in the chair, a senior official of the FIA said the social networking sites took eight weeks to provide details about any account.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]


With the government’s interest in digitisation of the country to boost business and ultimately the economy, access to the internet and information on it turned out to also be a priority of the authorities in 2019. Whether it’s their plan to setup infrastructure for high speed internet or denying access to the content online, major developments in terms of Access are as below:

  • Govt committed to extend high speed internet services to GB, AJK

    Federal Minister for Planning, Development & Reform and Statistics Division Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar said that the government is committed to extend high speed internet services of 3G & 4G to Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir regions to improve land based communications.

    ‘The extension of these services will also help promote industry and tourism in these areas’, added the Minister.

    Source: [The News]

  • Awami Workers Party files petition in IHC against website censorship

    Awami Workers Party, AWP, has filed a petition in Islamabad High Court, IHC, against censorship of its website by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA.

    AWP website is blocked since June 03, 2018 under unexplained circumstances.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

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

    Islamabad High Court (IHC) heard the case petitioned by the Awami Workers Party (AWP) regarding the blocking of their website and other online content by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

    The petition was filed by the AWP against PTA  in February 2019 to challenge its authority of blocking AWP website weeks before the General Elections 2018.

    The honorable judge objected the blocking of the website on the basis of hateful content and questioned the authority by which the actions were taken without issuing notice and giving the petitioner a chance to respond.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

  • IHC directs PTA to provide opportunity of hearing before blocking online content

    The Islamabad High Court, in a decision on Saturday declared that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) does not have the power to block a website, without a written notice or provide opportunity to hear the other party. The Court in its decision found PTA’s actions to be in violation of various laws, most prominently mentioning 10-A of the constitution and section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

  • Reports of arbitrary network shutdowns in Karachi & Islamabad; PTA & Interior Ministry deny issuance of notices to telcos

    In the wake of Ashura, during the observance of related religious activities, arbitrary network shutdowns were reported from a number of areas in Karachi and Islamabad. Digital Rights Monitor reached out to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Federal Interior Ministry to confirm if any official notifications were issued to the telecom operators demanding the suspension of telecom services to deal with any potential law and order situation during the observance of Ashura.

    Both departments denied issuing any notifications to telecom operators for suspension of services.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

  • Zong served notice by PTA over misleading 5G advertisement

    Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) revealed in the session of Senate Committee on IT & Communication that it has issued a notice to Zong over their misleading 5G advertisement. Dr Khawar Siddique Khokhar, member PTA, told the committee that PTA has issued a notice to Zong over their claim of being the only 5G network in Pakistan.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

  • No 5G in Pakistan before 2023, says PTA

    Dr Khawar Siddique Khokhar, a member of the PTA, told the committee in his briefing that Pakistan doesn’t have the infrastructure to launch 5G in near future. He added that infrastructure development is a time taking process and Pakistan will not be able to launch 5G before 2023.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

Freedom of Expression

Despite being one of the constitutionally protected rights of Pakistani citizens, freedom of expression turned out to be one of the most threatened civil liberties in 2019. The year witnessed a rise in censorship and self-censorship and the government and its ministries kept hinting at further restricting the digital spaces in Pakistan. Here’s major updates from 2019:

  • Cabinet approves merger of all media regulatory bodies

    The federal cabinet approved the formation of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) that envisages merger of all bodies regulating media, including the print and electronic media.

    Source: [Dawn.com]

  • Notices issued under petition challenging defamation sections in Pakistan Penal Code

    The Islamabad High Court (IHC) heard a case challenging the criminal defamation sections (section 499: Defamation and 500: Punishment for Defamation) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). The case titled “Asad Baig Vs. Federation of Pakistan” contends that criminal defamation laws act as a “prior restraint” and affects the fundamental freedom of speech granted under Article 19: Freedom of Speech, etc. of the Constitution of Pakistan.

    Source: [Digital Rights Monitor]

What’s next?

Media Matters for Democracy is committed to advance digital rights in Pakistan while ensuring the gap between policymakers and citizens is bridged through out continued intervention, advocacy and lobbying for better policies and regulations. Although 2019 has been a year with a lot of challenges, it was also a year that set the tone for a lot of our efforts to uphold rights for everyone in digital spaces in the years that follow. We acknowledge that MMfD can’t do it alone, and that is why we hope to engage with the users of the internet more in 2020 and partner with friends of the internet to ensure the internet is safe, accessible and just for everyone in Pakistan and beyond.

We remain hopeful that the government will appreciate civil society’s effort to engage with them on the matters of regulation around technology to improve legal and regulatory frameworks affecting the Internet.


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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