Inter-ministerial body restrained from blocking websites

Published December 16, 2014
The Islamabad High Court building. — Photo courtesy: www.ihc.gov.pk
The Islamabad High Court building. — Photo courtesy: www.ihc.gov.pk

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday restrained the inter-ministerial committee for the evaluation of websites (IMCEW) from blocking websites until the conclusion of the case without the court's approval.

Justice Athar Minallah issued the order on a petition filed by ‘Bolo Bhi’. The committee was restrained from issuing any directions to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block websites without approval of the court till the next hearing of the petition.

Justice Minallah also issued notices to the respondent - the secretary ministry of information technology, IMCEW and the chairman PTA - seeking their comments in two weeks.

Bolo Bhi in its petition contended that the IMCEW was unconstitutional. The petitioner through its counsel adopted before the court that IMCEW was constituted through an executive order in 2006 and since then it had been issuing orders to take down contents.

“In its eight years of existence, the working of the committee has been non-transparent and dubious to say the least. There is no public record of its members, meetings or directives.”

The petition said the IMCEW issued directives to the PTA which were enforced by the latter through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This year, it has been noted that the PTA has been routing IMCEW directives to companies such as Twitter and Facebook to restrict their content in Pakistan. Some of these requests have also been complied with, it added.

IHC seeks comments from ministry, PTA on plea filed by NGO working for internet users’ rights

This indicates that the IMCEW is being viewed as the ‘competent’ authority to deal with issues of content removal and restriction in Pakistan.

The petition contended that the IMCEW as an executive body had arbitrarily conferred upon itself the powers. It said the committee was prone to political hijacking and pressure and had been used to personal and political ends to stem ‘undesirable’ and dissenting opinion.

“Facebook’s most recent transparency report reveals 1,773 pieces of contents were restricted by Facebook in compliance with the requests of the government of Pakistan, not only on grounds of blasphemy but also criticism of the state.”

There is no law in Pakistan that declares criticism of the government illegal within the country, the petition said, adding that interpreting what constituted criticism of the state did not fall within the ambit of the IMCEW, PTA or anybody in Pakistan for that matter.

It alleged that the IMCEW had become a prime example of arbitrary and ad hoc executive action and abuse of power.

The petition requested the court to declare the IMCEW as illegal and contrary to the Telecom Act and Rules of Business 1973.

Published in Dawn December 16th , 2014

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