Archives for September 2017

September 25, 2017 - Comments Off on Twitter Transparency Report, January – June, 2017: An Uptake in Requests by the Government

Twitter Transparency Report, January – June, 2017: An Uptake in Requests by the Government

Incursions onto free Speech, particularly with reference to the internet, are on the rise, creating a climate of fear and oppression for social media activists and bloggers, ultimately resulting in self-censorship. Pakistan is ranked 139 in the World Press Freedom Index 2017 and classified as “Partly Free” by Freedom House in 2016. Furthermore, Pakistan’s request to social media companies for information and content removal is increasing at an alarming rate. This rise comes in light of the fact that Pakistan has passed the cybercrime legislation, ostensibly to prevent misuse of freedom in online spaces, that has raised concerns in terms of right to free expression and privacy.

This trend has been reflected in the Twitter Transparency report released September 21, 2017. Pakistan had made a total of four account information requests between July and December last year, compared to seven requests made during the first half of 2017. The number of requests made was higher and so was the number of accounts specified in the requests that had increased from 38 in the second half of 2016 to 60 in the first half of 2017.


Pakistan also made 7 requests to Twitter for the removal of 24 accounts between July to December last year, compared to 24 removal request for 82 accounts in the first half of 2017.


The report demonstrates more than a twofold increase in the first half of 2017, for much too obvious reasons.

Foremost, since the promulgation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA), the situation has only deteriorated. It places new curbs on free expression and legitimate internet usage under which mere criticism of the military, judicial system and religion can lead to imprisonment. Further, it has resulted in increased government surveillance and monitoring of bloggers, providing them with no accountability or redress.

In early January, 5 bloggers from different cities were allegedly abducted for questioning the political influence of the establishment and speaking up for the rights of religious minorities.

This was followed by another crackdown on social media activists in May for posting anti-state content and maligning its institutions, military in particular.

Presumably, such practices may have potentially contributed to the increase of Government’s request to Twitter. They demonstrate the abuse of the space that we have given up by allowing laws such as PECA to pass and to encroach on our rights.

Interestingly, Twitter declined all requests for account information and removal of accounts and claimed that it did not remove any account or provide any data to the government as opposed to a global trend which saw Twitter suspending more accounts than ever before.

Although, the nature of the requests made by our Government are unclear but none of the 24 removal requests made were legal requests or in the form of a court or legal order, therefore, questioning the legitimacy of requests and potential abuse of power by law enforcement and security agencies.

This shows that the lack of transparency by our Government in relation to the process and selection criteria of requests demonstrated by the absence of judicial oversight could have potentially led to Twitter’s refusal.

On the contrary, Brazil and Turkey made 15 and 715 content removal requests respectively, to Twitter in the form of court orders and successfully got 15% and 11% of the reported content respectively, removed.

Therefore, it is time our government applies similar checks and balances primarily to prevent the intelligence and security agencies from the use and abuse of arbitrary powers vested in them by legislations such as PECA.

It is urged that prior to making information or content removal requests, potentially infringing constitutional rights of Pakistani citizens, a mandatory court order based on clearly defined rules should be required and only in extremely exceptional cases requiring urgent action, should it be exempted.

Author: Jannat Ali

September 07, 2017 - Comments Off on Is the collection of student data by LEAs permitted by law?

Is the collection of student data by LEAs permitted by law?

In the wake of an attack on the leader of the Opposition in the Sindh Assembly, allegedly carried out by a Karachi University student, concerns of student militancy over the years continue to grow. In this context, the aim of the collection of private student data by law enforcement agencies (LEAs) is to ostensibly track and curb potential involvement in terrorism.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), passed in 2016, does provide a mechanism whereby an authorized officer may by notice, require universities to provide or preserve the specified data for up to 90 days and only bring to the notice of the court within twenty four hours after the acquisition of the data. The court may issue a warrant for disclosure, furthermore, if the court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for the purpose of preventing crime.

It is unclear, therefore, as to which provisions law enforcement agencies (LEAs) will be relying on in order to legitimise such large-scale data collection. Simultaneously, there are no direct data protection laws in Pakistan that would challenge this invasion of privacy. Further to this, the security agencies that the LEAs will be working alongside have yet to finalise or even develop an effective mechanism in regards to data collection and with respect to privacy.

The PECA provisions listed above, furthermore, are only strictly applicable in relation to ‘ongoing’ criminal proceedings or investigation and cannot be used as a tool to profile or surveil all university students under the guise of national security. As a nation with security state characteristics, Pakistan has troubling precedent in regards to overriding fundamental human rights in the name of security, and which we could see happening here.

There are similarities that could also be drawn between student data collection and the compulsory SIM registration policy by NADRA, which were promoted and created as a means of cracking down on potential terrorists. It is likely that a similar policy would be adopted by the security agencies, using much the same justification.

Putting private data of university students under intense scrutiny could exacerbate an already stressful atmosphere - students are required to provide “character” certificates when being admitted, and there is an increase in CCTV monitoring at entrances and exits of several campuses across Pakistan. Such mass surveillance of students must be condemned, as this would harbour distrust and anxiety in students. Rather than make them feel safer, mass surveillance would actually increase feelings of insecurity, as they would feel unable to express their views freely.

Data collection and other aforementioned anti-terrorism actions by the state have thus far generally failed to garner support, even within parts of the government. Senator Raza Rabbani echoed concerns similar to ours in a letter (which can be found at the end of this post) addressed to the Vice Chancellor of Karachi University:

the police and the intelligence agencies are the hard face of the state, an interaction with them will further consolidate the anxiety and fear in the minds of the students.

Senator Rabbani stressed that while immediate steps must be taken to address the issue of extremism - proposing a total review of the university curriculum, as well as the implementation of the Senate of Pakistan’s Resolution on restoring student unions - “diverse literary and academic activity” could play in building an effective counter-paradigm. From this it can be inferred that the Senate of Pakistan recognises free speech as a fundamental right that can be a far greater bulwark against terrorism than mass surveillance. This recognition could aid in the development of a major shift in Pakistan’s human rights history.

What is needed is a robust data protection legal regime that prohibits the retention of data by third parties to be later provided to the government. It should explicitly state the exceptions and should specify which information should and should not be disclosed to the government, if the need arises. It should impose a duty on organizations including universities to take specific measures to protect the student’s personal data and penalize them for non-compliance. Further, for less serious cases, there should be a non-mandatory mechanism whereby the university should decide if it would be necessary and proportionate to disclose information to LEAs.



September 06, 2017 - Comments Off on August 2017 at DRF: Nighat Dad Represents the People of Pakistan at TED Global

August 2017 at DRF: Nighat Dad Represents the People of Pakistan at TED Global

Nighat Dad Speaks at the TED Global Stage

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The entire team of Digital Rights Foundation is ecstatic to share that our very own Nighat Dad was in Arusha, Tanzania to speak at TED Global 2017 on August 28.

Nighat spoke about her own struggle to safely access the technology and how that struggle led her to make things easy for other women in the country. She talked about her dream of a reclaimed online world for women where they're not harassed for expressing their opinions and for making their voices heard; the dream that made way for her to establish Pakistan's first Cyber Harassment Helpline.

Nighat represented the people of Pakistan on a stage as prestigious as TED and received an overwhelming standing ovation from the audience.

For Nighat and for the entire DRF, the inspiration comes from these very people who we represent - the people of Pakistan. The support that our people have given us throughout our journey of making the internet safe and accessible for everyone is what keeps us going, and we'll do whatever it takes to achieve the dream that benefits us all because the road is long and the fight isn't over yet.

As Nighat said on the TED stage:

"These women, who pretend to be okay when nothing’s alright, are the women I look up to. They are the strong ones who give me strength and power to speak up for them and soldier on. And my struggles and efforts for the open and safe internet are dedicated to them and their unfettered courage and resilience."

Here's to the strong people of Pakistan.

Cyber Harassment Helpline Expands its Operations


The Cyber Harassment Helpline is ecstatic to announce that it has expanded its operations to seven days a week. Previously our capacity allowed to us cater to calls five days a week--from Monday to Friday, but building on the success of its first nine months of operations we are able to provide more urgent and timely services. Read details here.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 Completes its First Year

PECA Anniversary Cover

August 2017 marked one year since the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) was passed by the National Assembly. Did the Act fulfill its stated aims? Are online spaces any safer or has it resulted in online self-censorship? DRF published a review of the Act’s progress through a short analysis and illustrative timeline which can be accessed here.

MOU signed with Lo Bono Law

Lo bono Law

Our Cyber Harassment Helpline signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Karachi-based Lo Bono Law which a law firm established to provide cost effective quality legal services to those who cannot afford high costs of litigation. It provides quality legal services to indigent clients.

DRF can now refer callers to Lo Bono as part of its referral system, continuing its aim to provide more comprehensive legal services to victims of online harassment.

Find out more about Lo Bono here.

Punjab IT Board Focus Group Discussion on Cybersecurity

On August 24th, DRF took part in a Punjab IT Board (PITB) Focus Group Discussion on Cybersecurity. Organised by Techhub Connect, the discussion focused on the dire state of Pakistan’s cybersecurity infrastructure, and the need of the government and tech industry to address threats to national tech infrastructure. The discussion also looked at the lack of sufficient awareness by the public regarding cybersecurity practices and awareness regarding privacy etc.

The discussion, which included IT researchers and senior telecoms executives, also focused on and introduced the creation of a Punjab Cyber Emergency Response Team (P-CERT), and invited feedback concerning the P-CERT team.

DRF raised concerns that the FGD was not focusing on legislative reforms, and pushed for changes that reflected and respected the rights of citizens. DRF also brought up that the overly broad Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act could risk discouraging people with the tech skills necessary for cybersecurity initiatives, eg White Hat hackers, because of harsh penalties.  Cybersecurity, DRF remarked, needs to ensure that there is a balance between rights and security that does not limit the former, otherwise what is the latter protecting?

Hamara Internet Workshop ‘Our Right to Safe Online Spaces’ with Civil Society

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Digital Rights Foundation and FNF organized the Hamara Internet workshop titled ‘ Our Right to Safe Online Spaces’ with civil society members in the month of August. The workshop focused on how civil society members can  come together as agents of change and create online spaces that are safe for not just women but also other marginalized communities. The workshop also raised awareness around online safety amongst civil society members and educated them about the additional resources available to them in case of cyber harassment. Civil society members also discussed the implications of mental health and coping mechanisms in place for human right defenders.

Workshop on Digital Empowerment for Women in Media

Worshop with Journalists-01

The team of DRF kicked off a 2 day basic online safety training course titled “Digital Empowerment of Women in Media” in mid August, in Lahore. Women in media from all over Punjab and KP were selected to participate in this session, which featured hands-on training with security tools especially designed to help journalists and citizen bloggers protect themselves in the digital age and ensure they can continue their mission of free and impartial reporting without facing aggravated personal risk for it. Based on our research published in December 2016, female journalists in Pakistan don’t feel safe expressing their opinions online, hence are scared of the consequences while simply performing their job. That's why the workshop also included a special portion on self care and mental health awareness throughout.