ISLAMABAD: The telecom companies have collectively forwarded their concerns to the Ministry of IT that the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) decision to block SIMs of non-filers was made in undue haste and will adversely impact telecom customers.

The letter has also been forwarded to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) regarding the FBR’s order under the Income Tax General Order (ITGO) issued on April 29, which sought to block SIMs of 506,671 individuals who have failed to file their tax returns for the tax year 2023.

The letter by the cellular mobile operators (CMOs) said that they were obligated to provide uninterrupted services to their customers except in the circumstances mentioned in the Telecom Act and applicable regulations; there are no instances wherein CMOs can disconnect or block the service of any customer.

“The ITGO being forced through with undue haste will adversely impact the customers,” the letter said. “This will gravely impact the customers’ ability to get essential services, which have now been defined as the right to life, according to different judgements of superior courts,” it added.

Say FBR’s ‘hasty’ decision to hurt consumer rights

“Besides the aspect of consumer protection was important with relevant constitutional provisions of basic human rights, Consumer Protection Regulations mandated operators that any suspension of service is subject to prior notice of such intentions, and in the instant case the issuance of notice is not possible because of the legal defects of ITGO.”

The CMOs have suggested that delinquent individuals should be sanctioned and penalised directly without involving and adversely impacting the telecom industry.

The letter further said that if telecom operators comply with the ITGO, the affected individuals may initiate litigation against the CMOs.

“The affected individual may even seek to recover special costs, damages & losses that he/she has incurred because of SIM card being blocked,” the letter by the CMOs said, adding, “It is unjust, unreasonable, and unacceptable for CMOs to be exposed to such a risk.”

It added that telecom companies were one of the biggest contributors to revenue collection in the country, and before implementing such orders, certain protections or indemnities must be given to CMOs through an amendment in law to prevent adverse consequences or claims by customers.

The telecom industry has also added that the bulk blocking of SIMs would be an issue technically and CMOs would need to warn such customers multiple times before execution of any blocking through SMS messages, if required by law, as they have contractual obligations towards their consumers to provide advance statutory notice with valid reasons, which in this case are absent.

The letter added that telcos have to develop internal processes and system development, which requires reasonable time and resources; hence, immediate compliance with such ITGO is difficult.

The telecom industry also suggests that every individual is entitled to fair and equitable treatment with due process under the law. Therefore, individuals affected by the ITGO should be duly informed through an extensive media campaign and provided with show-cause notices, allowing them to present their case in a tribunal or court of law.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2024

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