Internet rules in Pakistan: Regulation or strangulation – published on July 11, 2020

Muhammad Aftab Alam

Internet is nothing but a network of globally interconnected computers. This network operates in a multilayered system in which global, national, local and personal layers are strongly intertwined. While using Internet, a computer/cellphone connects itself with a local/national broadband or 3G/4G service provider, known as Internet Service Provider (ISP). In Pakistan, these ISPs are licensed by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and are all linked with a government-run national Internet Exchange Point (IXP). At the global level, this IXP is connected with one or more of around 430 fiber-optic submarine cables. A limited satellite-based internet is also operational at present.

Computers/cellphones connected with this system communicate through their individual Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP). These devices are either hosts of information, data and online services in the shape of websites and online applications or these access and use such websites and applications. Similarly, each website/application has its own unique address which is commonly known as URL – Uniform Resource Locator. In a normal situation, all the data passing through all the Internet connected devices, including their TCP/IP addresses, is visible at all levels including to ISPs and IXPs – except when it is encrypted and digitally secured.

To understand the enormity and variety of this system, just imagine that Pakistan alone has 82 million broadband Internet subscribers and 80 million 3G/4G subscribers. According to some estimates, only Facebook has more than 37 million users in the country. Millions of Pakistanis also use WhatsApp for sharing data and information and making audio/video calls. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them are operating their own YouTube channels while YouTube videos get millions of views every day.

Some of these functions – such as online video broadcasts, live streaming and video calls through Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) — are not very old. These were made practicable by the introduction of Web 2.0 in 2006. Since their advent, several social media and communication platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Skype have emerged. They have given people multiple options to access information, to express their views and to interact with a global community of family, friends, colleagues and even strangers.

The same year, the government of General Pervez Musharraf formed an Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites. The committee was given the authority to issue directions to PTA to block allegedly ‘blasphemous, anti-state, anti-religion and sexually explicit content’ online. The move’s objective was to impose a governmental control over online spaces which were expanding the choices that the citizens could have to exercise their freedom of expression and their right to access information.

Over the next eight years, the committee blocked many online platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Flickr and thousands of other websites. It is entirely another matter that these blocked platforms could be accessed via proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that allow an internet user to “create a ‘virtual’, private channel between their computer or cellphone and an internet server…”

In December 2014, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) restrained the committee from blocking websites. The court’s ruling, however, could not stop the federal government from introducing the draft of a highly controversial law called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in 2015. This black piece of legislation was passed by Parliament in August 2016 in spite of a strong opposition from digital rights activists.

The law gives an arbitrary power to PTA “to remove or block or issue direction for removal or blocking of access to any information [on any website or social media platform] if it considers it necessary in the interest of glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to the contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.”

Subsequently, PTA blocked access to nearly one million websites between 2016 and 2019. These include the official website of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) – a left-wing political organization — which was blocked a few weeks before the general elections in 2018. When this action was challenged before IHC, the court ruled that it was against the “principles of natural justice and the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 10-A (Right to Fair Trial) of the Constitution.” The Court also directed PTA to formulate rules under PECA’s section 37(2) within 90 days to exercise its powers under section 37(1).

Taking a cue from the court order, the federal government – but not the PTA – formulated and notified “the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 in January this year. Besides providing a procedure for blocking “online objectionable material”, these rules require all social media and online communication platforms to (a) register themselves with the government, (b) establish permanent registered office in Islamabad and (c) move one or more of their servers into Pakistan.

The rules also provide for the appointment of a national coordinator – an official designated by the minister in-charge of Information Technology and Telecommunication division – to ensure compliance. The coordinator can “issue instructions for blocking of the entire online system, social media application or services etc., owned or managed or run by a social media company”.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a representative body of global tech giants including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Linkedin, Yahoo, Zmazon etc, has strongly reacted to these rules and demanded their withdrawal. Their legality has also been challenged/questioned through petitions filed in IHC.

Notwithstanding these challenges and in spite of the official claims that the rules have been suspended, they are still in place for all intents and purposes. If they are not withdrawn, social media companies and/or communication websites/applications not registered in Pakistan will not be accessible to Pakistani users.

Since VPN can enable users to access even the banned platforms and communication channels, they can effectively make these rules redundant. PTA, therefore, is invoking clause 4(6) of the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations (MRITT) of 2010 to restrict the use of VPNs. It announced last month that the “use of any mode of communication such as VPN by means of which communication becomes hidden or encrypted is violation of PTA Regulations” and told all VPN users to have themselves registered if they need to use them “for legitimate purposes.” These legitimate purposes include the use of VPNs in corporate environments — particularly in banks and telecoms — which maintain and process big data and private/sensitive information.

In a nutshell, it can be convincingly argued that the restrictions on VPNs are meant to stave off the ‘crime’ of political dissent since it will be almost impossible to use a government-approved VPN for anything other than business and commerce. Since a large part of the “blocked social media platforms or communication applications” carry political contents, it is highly unlike that human rights defenders, activists promoting freedom of expression and right to information and campaigners for civil liberties will be allowed to use VPNs to access such content.

Ultimately, the government will be able to completely block access to any platform that does not abide by its diktat. This will further add to the existing curbs on freedom of expression and access to information and enable the proverbial ‘big brother’ to watch every piece of information coming in and going out of the country via Internet. Privacy and anonymity, which are regarded as fundamental freedoms in a democratic society, will become only a distant dream in Pakistan.