Rights groups to boycott talks with govt over online rules

Updated Mar 02 2020

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Over 100 rights organisations and individuals have decided to boycott government consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 unless the cabinet withdraws the rules it approved on Feb 11. — Reuters/File
Over 100 rights organisations and individuals have decided to boycott government consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 unless the cabinet withdraws the rules it approved on Feb 11. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: Over 100 rights organisations and individuals have decided to boycott government consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 unless the cabinet withdraws the rules it approved on Feb 11.

They have also objected to the selection of committee members for consultation as not a single representative of civil society, industry and stakeholders has been nominated.

The prime minister had announced consultation with stakeholders over the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 after cabinet approval of the rules attracted sharp opposition from various quarters including the companies that manage different social media platforms.

For the purpose, the Ministry of Information Technology formed a committee headed by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa. Additional secretary of IT Eazaz Aslam Dar, PM Office Strategic Reforms Imple­mentation Unit member Tania Aidrus and focal person on digital media Dr Arslan Khalid were included as members of the committee. Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari and Barrister Ali Zafar will also be involved in the process.

Object to selection of committee members; call for withdrawal of rules approved by cabinet

According to a statement signed by organisations Bolo Bhi; Digital Rights Foundation; Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development; Pakistan Bar Council; Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; Pakistan Press Foundation; Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists; Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan; Freedom Network; Awami Workers Party and others, the government has refused to clarify the legal status of the rules without which “any consultation is merely token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input”.

The statement reads: “While cabinet approval for the rules remains in place, there can be no engagement or consultation. This only shows the government’s intent to use the consultation as a smokescreen while intending to implement and enforce the rules already prepared and approved. The rules as they exist, merit no discussion at all. How citizens are to be protected requires an open and informed discussion which takes into account existing procedures, laws as well as how they have been applied. The abuse of authority by the PTA and government, especially their misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016 to stifle dissent and Section 37 of Peca [which gives powers to block or remove online content] in particular to report and restrict political speech, will have to be addressed first.”

The rights activists and groups also asked tech companies to “unequivocally state the terms of their engagement” with the government on the rules.

“Too often, citizens and end users become collateral in agreements governments and companies reach in breach of their rights, and we wish to remind them their actions will be scrutinized against adherence to global best practices and international principles to protect expression and privacy. For the benefit of public discourse, we will continue to make public information that illustrates sensible ways of protecting citizens as well as information from comparative jurisdictions, but will not participate in any process initiated to deflect criticism and seeks to draw legitimacy to carry forth the implementation of the rules that were devised in bad faith,” the statement adds.

Through the statement, it is demanded that the rules must be withdrawn by the federal cabinet and the decision, as documented through the process, be made public before any consultation is held. Civil society has been categorical that Section 37 of Peca must be repealed. The consultation must begin by addressing the overbroad and arbitrary nature of Section 37 under which these rules have been issued and review the abuse of power by the PTA and government in carrying out its functions since the enactment of Peca. The consultation must follow an open and transparent process. The committee must make public the agenda, process it intends to follow and clear timelines. All input provided should be minuted and put together in a report form to be disseminated for public feedback with a specified timeline which is reasonable, before which no rules should be approved or enforced.

IRADA Executive Director Aftab Alam told Dawn that as the rules of Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 had been approved by the federal cabinet so they just had to be published in the Gazette of Pakistan for implementation.

“We have decided to boycott the consultations as there are only government representatives in the committee. It has been decided to establish an Office of National Coordinator, who will be nominated by the IT Minister and will have unlimited powers. Moreover, rules do not allow establishing Office of National Coordinator,” he said.

“As per rules, all social media companies such as Facebook will have to establish offices in Pakistan within three months and they will be bound to share detail of users with Office of National Coordinator.

“We fear that all social media apps will stop operating in Pakistan as Asian Internet Coalition (AIC) has said that it will be difficult to operate in Pakistan and Global Network Initiative (GNI) has termed it horrible,” he said.

Mr Alam said the stakeholders were of the opinion that the government plan was stopped temporarily and stakeholders would not be included in any consultation. “Even if we would be invited for the consultations it would only be eyewash. That is why we are demanding that federal cabinet should withdraw approval of rules and new terms of references (TORs) are made for Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020,” he said.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2020