Archives for February 2020

February 20, 2020 - Comments Off on Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020: Legal Analysis

Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020: Legal Analysis

The ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’ have been notified under sections of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 (hereinafter collectively referred to as the ‘Parent Acts’). Under these Rules, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is the designated Authority. This legal analysis will highlight the jurisdictional and substantive issues with the Regulations in light of constitutional principles and precedent as well as larger policy questions.

Summary of the Legal Analysis

Given that the Rules exceed the scope of the Parent Acts and substantively violate the fundamental/Constitutional rights, particularly Article 14 and 19, they are inconsistent and in derogation with the Constitution as well as the Parent Acts and should be immediately denotified.


February 13, 2020 - Comments Off on DRF Condemns Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 as an Affront on Online Freedoms

DRF Condemns Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 as an Affront on Online Freedoms

Digital Rights Foundation strongly condemns the recent ‘Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020’ notified by the Ministry of Information Technology. Digital Rights Foundation raises strong objections to the Rules as they severely restrict the freedom of expression and privacy of Pakistani citizens in online spaces. 

These Rules directly address social media companies and require them to register and locate offices inside Pakistan, particularly establish database servers in the country signaling a definitive move towards data localisation. Additionally, the rules establish a ‘National Coordinator’ to engage with the social media companies on behalf of the Federal Government. The main objective of the Rules, it seems, is to exercise greater control over digital content of Pakistani users of these platforms and social media companies. If these companies do not abide by the requests of the National Coordinator, they will face heavy fines or a total shutdown of their platforms within Pakistan. 

Moreover, social media companies are instructed to “establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within twelve months of the date of publication of these Rules to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy” (Section 5(d)). While this is ostensibly being done to protect citizen’s data privacy, it is clear that these Rules have the potential to be used to censor the last remaining frontier of information i.e. online media and make invasions into the personal data of Pakistanis on social media.

Rationale For Condemnation 

The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, chalk out the government’s plan to centralise control of digital information and expression through one central ‘National Coordinator.’ For the following reasons, we reject these rules and believe they should be revoked:

The Rules are a blatant violation of Article 19 (freedom of speech and information) of the Constitution. They exceed the boundaries of permissible restrictions within the meaning of Article 19 and lack the necessary attributes of reasonableness. While Article 19 permits ‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of speech only in the “interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court,” the Rules require all social media companies to remove or block online content if it is, among other things, in “contravention of instructions of the National Coordinator” (Section 4). As is clear from a plain reading of Article 19, ‘contravention of instructions of the National Coordinator’ is not a purpose for which a restriction on freedom of speech may be placed and cannot be used as a benchmark to undermine fundamental rights. 

This allows the National Coordinator to regulate online content purely on its whims and wishes. Further, the Rules require Social Media Companies to remove, suspend or disable any news article that is considered, or interpreted to be, ‘fake’ by the National Coordinator; bestowing upon it unchecked powers to be exercised at convenience.

Additionally, we feel that the additional powers of the Rules go beyond the scope of the parent Acts, i.e. Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The PTA cannot delegate powers to another authority such as the National Coordinator beyond the powers that were vested in it through the parent legislation.

Violation of Right to Privacy: 

These Rules further weaken the state of privacy in the country: Data privacy is a pre-existing issue in the country, however, given current Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act regulations, there is still a legal process through which information or data on private users can be requested. The Rules presented by the Ministry of IT completely negate the current process, giving the government total access over data and information. Section 6 of the Rules obligates social media companies to provide any information, data, content or sub-content requested by the Investigation Agency. Astonishingly, the agency is not required to go through any legal or judicial procedure to make such a request. More worrying  is the fact that the information/data requested does not necessarily have to be in connection with, or related to, any offence laid out under the Rules rather can be any information the Investigation Agency may wish to pry into. Apart from violating the fundamental right to privacy, the Rules further threaten the state of privacy of private citizens within Pakistan. Furthermore, it is alarming that section 6 requires social media companies to provide information in “decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version”, violating the reasonable expectation of privacy that citizens have when using social media and messaging applications.

Dire Consequences 

The Digital Economy will be massively affected: 

The most obvious effect of these rules will be on the digital ecosystem of Pakistan. These rules are incredibly restrictive and place immense powers in the hands of a ‘National Coordinator’. Such an atmosphere will prove non-conducive for social media companies to move to Pakistan as well as restrict the growth of Pakistan’s domestic digital economy. 

Social media has emerged as the backbone of many modern businesses, and has indeed created a new type of digital market. Many small businesses, women entrepreneurs and content creators use social media as a medium for their business. The imposition of such harsh rules will therefore not only affect individuals but also local startups and e-commerce establishments. 

Pakistan’s appeal as an investment opportunity will diminish: 

The requirement for registering with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (Section 5) and to establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan is a move towards “data localisation,” that will require every company to open an office in Pakistan before they can be granted permission to be viewed and/or create content in Pakistan. This challenges the borderless nature of the internet - a feature that is intrinsic to the internet itself. Even otherwise, forcing businesses to create a local presence is outside normal global business practice and creates a disincentive to invest within Pakistan. Such a regulation will force international social media companies to exit the country rather than invest further in Pakistan. It is unreasonable to expect companies to set up infrastructure in the country as per the Harm Rules when the nature of the internet allows for it to be easily administered remotely.

Society will begin to self-censor and important discourse will decrease: 

These Rules cannot be looked at in isolation. In a society that is faced with such massive impediments to free speech, the likely reaction that citizens end up having is to self censor themselves. People will restrict the discussions they take part in online and will also be less likely to partake in useful and productive conversations around governance and law. This will sever an important tie between the government and its people, thereby creating a massive divide between the two entities; something a democracy such as ours cannot afford. 

February 11, 2020 - Comments Off on A Win For Digital Rights In Pakistan, One Step At A Time

A Win For Digital Rights In Pakistan, One Step At A Time

We welcome the Senate Committee On Human Rights’ decision rejecting the proposed regulation on Web TV and OTT TV, while declaring that PEMRA does not have any jurisdiction over internet and digital content under the PEMRA ordinance. The Senate Committee on Human Rights conducted a briefing about PEMRA’s proposed regulations, inviting Digital Rights Foundation and other civil society organizations on Monday, 10th of February. 

The committee took notice of proposed PEMRA regulations after a strong statement issued by Digital Rights Foundation, Bolo Bhi, IRADA, Freedom Network and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, rejecting PEMRA’s regulation on the whole. Statement was endorsed by dozens of media organizations, the Women Action Forum, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Network of Women Journalists on Digital Rights, independent journalists, content creators, CSOs and feminists movements.   

The Chair of the Committee, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, objected to the proposed regulation while questioning PEMRA’s very jurisdiction over the internet and digital content. Additionally Senator Ayesha Raza commented that if PEMRA aims to ‘level the playing field’ with these regulations then traditional media needs to be incentivized to create competition, rather than curbing the digital economy. 

DRF’s Executive Director, Nighat Dad said that these regulations would mean PEMRA is threatening Pakistan’s growing digital economy and also the livelihood of  digital content creators and influencers. She pressed how these regulations would add further impediments to freedom to expression, given PEMRA’s power to declare anything as ‘illegal content’. These restrictions, she added, would be contradictory to the vision and spirit of the Prime Minister’s ‘Digital Pakistan’ initiative.

Bolo Bhi’s Director, Usama Khilji, said that these proposed regulations would impact young entrepreneurs given how digital platforms are used in this modern age. He further added that these regulations would stifle the growth of the startups in Pakistan. Moreover, it was pointed out that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) has provisions to hold digital content creators and influencers accountable.

This is a big win for Pakistan not only for digital rights activists but everyone who is part of the digital economy. DRF, Bolo Bhi, Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development, Freedom Network would like to express our gratitude to each organization and individuals who signed our public statement. 

Lastly, we would like to express our appreciation to Senators Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq, Senator Quratulain Marri, Senator Usman Kakar and Senator Mohammad Tahir Bizenjo, for giving us all the opportunity to present our arguments and for protecting the digital rights and civil liberties of the citizens of Pakistan. 


February 10, 2020 - Comments Off on January 2020: DRF released its latest report on fake news

January 2020: DRF released its latest report on fake news

Digital Rights Foundation released its report titled, ‘Sifting Truth from Lies in the Era of Fake News’,  on 15th January 2020. The study attempts to identify topics that are more susceptible to fake news, and common methods of its dissemination. It also examines the extent of fact-checking practiced in Pakistan’s newsrooms and how often do journalists believe fake news to be true.

Based on the experiences of 152 journalists and activists, who participated in a survey for the research, the report found that over 88per percent respondents identified social media platforms as the least worthy source of information with WhatsApp being a top choice. Eight percent of journalists said that no one fact-checked in the newsroom they worked at. The report can be accessed here. A policy brief was also released to be shared with key stakeholders and can be accessed here. The launch of the report was also widely covered in the media.

Understanding cyber harassment through a gendered lens - one day training session with Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) Cybercrime Wing, Karachi

On January 23, 2020 DRF conducted a training session  ‘Understanding cyber harassment through a gendered lens’ in collaboration with UN Women for FIA cyber crime representatives in Movenpick hotel, Karachi.  The ubiquitousness of harassment cases was discussed delineating its reasons viz; anonymity of users, gender hierarchy, lack of digital literacy, and victim-blaming. Session also highlighted how technology has deepened the gender divide and is being used as a platform for harassment. The aim of the session was to challenge participants’ views regarding harassment and shift attention from victim to perpetrator in order to help them empathize with victims coming to lodge their complaints, to build an insight around the fears and apprehensions of the victims that need to be addressed while building the victims’ trust in the procedure, and to address their queries regarding cyber harassment laws (PECA, 2016) and their prosecutorial shortcomings.

Combating Insecurity in the Age of Digital Media Transformations in Lahore

DRF organized a workshop for journalists on ‘’Combating Insecurity in the Age of Digital Media Transformations’’ at Park Lane Hotel, Lahore on 13th and 14th January 2020. The aim of the workshop was to discuss if the existing media ethics are suitable for the evolving digital media landscape or new and diverse standards are required. Around 24 journalists from print, electronic and digital media joined and actively participated in the two-day workshop. Participants gave their input on how to tackle fake news and disinformation online, considering the low levels of digital literacy among the population in Pakistan which makes it vulnerable to all kinds of online and digital propaganda.

DRF, alongside other major citizen groups and NGOs, released a public statement against proposed PEMRA laws

After much discussion, DRF and other advocacy groups came together to raise their voice and concern over proposed draft PEMRA regulations which are widely seen as draconian and as major impediments to freedom of speech, and creativity. The entire statement can be found here:

Citizens Groups, Journalists’ Body & Others Reject PEMRA’s Draconian Proposed Draft Regulations On Web TV & Other Allied Attempts

Session at Digital Literacy Camp for Young Opinion Leaders by Interactive Resource Centre

DRF delivered a session on “Understanding Social Media in the Age of Misinformation and Insecurity” at the Interactive Resource Centre on January 31 with content creators from across Pakistan where we spoke about digital rights education, the online right to freedom of expression and privacy, and digital safety.

Participated in launch of ‘End Cyber Abuse’ portal and Webinar

DRF contributed to the making of the ‘Pakistan Factsheet for “End Cyber Abuse”, which provide details regarding all legal remedies available to citizens in each country when faced with online abuse and violence. These fact sheets can be accessed here:

DRF also participated in a webinar titled "A Spotlight on Legal Remedies for Survivors of Image-Based Sexual Abuse Worldwide” on January 28th where we discussed the legal regime in Pakistan and the challenges that victims face in reporting cases of online violence. A recording of the webinar can be found here:

Session on Domestic Violence by Lincoln Corners at “Peacetivity”

DRF conducted an awareness session on domestic violence laws in Pakistan via weblink on January 11. The event was organised by Lincoln Corners at “Peacetivity”. The session covered the legal regime in each province, particularly Sindh, as well as the resources women have when reporting instances of online harassment.

DRF was a signatory to the APC’s Open Letter to the United Nations.

The purpose of this open letter was to raise our voice and concern over a proposed international convention against cyber crime that could impede on human rights online.

The details of this can be seen here:

DRF’s Executive Director, Nighat Dad took part in Esra’a Al Shafei’s podcast titled ‘Why We’re Pissed’.

Esra’a is a Bahraini Civil Rights Activist and Blogger. Her podcast, ‘Philantropi$$ed’ takes a critical look at the NGO sector worldwide. You can listen to her and Nighat’s fascinating conversation here:

Episode #1: Why We’re Pissed

DRF’s Executive Director, Nighat Dad, was selected for the prestigious International Leaders Programme (ILP).

The ILP identifies global leaders and invites them to the United Kingdom for high level meetings, briefings and diplomatic visits. Nighat is the first digital rights activist to be chosen for the ILP from Pakistan.

Before leaving for the program, Nighat Dad met with the British High Commissioner Dr. Christian Turner in Islamabad.

During the ILP, Nighat Dad took part in multiple high level meetings, and met with other activists and leaders who are working on digital rights. Nighat Dad also met with Baroness Helena Kennedy and had a productive conversation about civil liberties online and a collective way forward in the promotion of digital rights and online freedom of speech.