GNI identifies risks to privacy, freedom of expression in social media rules

Updated Feb 28 2020

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Welcomes govt decision to hold broad-based consultation. — Creative commons
Welcomes govt decision to hold broad-based consultation. — Creative commons

KARACHI: Concerned about the broad scope of the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, approved by the Pakistan government, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) has identified aspects of the rules that create significant risks to privacy and freedom of expression.

The GNI is a multi-stakeholder organisation composed of leading information and communication technology (ICT) companies (like Google, Microsoft, Telenor), academics, digital rights and media freedom groups that work to protect freedom of expression and privacy rights in the ICT sector.

In its statement on Wednesday, the GNI welcomed the government’s decision to hold “extensive and broad-based consultations” on the rules.

“GNI and its members stand ready to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with the government of Pakistan and any other government that is considering how best to address content regulation,” said GNI executive director Judith Lichtenberg.

The rules would require social media platforms to comply with censorship orders made without judicial review and facilitate access to the ICT user data endangering privacy. The broad and unspecified nature of these authorities and requirements pose real risks to the digital rights of Pakistani citizens, the GNI said.

Welcomes govt decision to hold broad-based consultation

“The Rules Against Online Harm, as currently drafted, raise more questions than they answer. We encourage the government to work with interested stakeholders to ensure proper identification of problems and corresponding solutions,” said Mark Stephens, GNI board independent chair.

The rules, the GNI said, raised significant concerns both locally and globally, among internet companies, civil society, and the general public, due to complete absence of consultation with stakeholders and the sweeping scope of the regulations.

“We welcome the decision by the government to hold an ‘extensive and broad based consultation’ process with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies about [the rules],” it stated.

The GNI expressed confidence that an open, considered approach to any concerns regarding illegal content online would yield more legally-sound results, which empower and protect Pakistani citizens and complement the government’s vision of a ‘Digital Pakistan’.

It pointed out that the rules appeared to have been passed quic­kly and without consultation with stakeholders, calling into question their legitimacy and legality under international human rights law.

By establishing broad and unchecked powers to censor a wide range of — and in some instances vaguely defined — categories of content, it said, the rules were also difficult to reconcile with the principles of necessity and proportionality.

Call to revoke rules

The GNI called on the government to pull back the rules and engage in a broad, transparent consultation with legislators, civil society, social media companies and other relevant stakeholders.

The GNI said the rules challenged the ability of companies to provide encryption for their products and services, raising cybersecurity concerns. In addition, the rules seemed to grant powers that might be greater than the authorising legislation they purport to implement.

It would enhance the government’s authority to demand user data in a non-judicially-supervised manner, raising privacy concerns as well, it added.

PTA to lead consultation

Earlier this week, the government in a press release had said the Pakistan Telecommunication Autho­rity (PTA) would lead the consultation with relevant stakeholders.

“In concert with other stakeholders, the PTA will be undertaking extensive, broad-based consultation process with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies about Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules,” it said.

The statement neither clarified whether the existing rules would be revoked nor did it specify a time period for the revision plan. The memo document of the rules, labelled ‘to be published in the official gazette’, has already been uploaded on the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) website.

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2020