Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) denounces the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, reportedly approved by the Federal Cabinet. The rules have been prepared in a completely secretive manner, without any consultation with general public, parliament, social media platforms and civil rights groups. In an Orwellian twist, the piously titled rules, threaten free speech, invade privacy of citizens and restrict their access to information. These are not only in conflict with the spirit of Article 14 (the right to privacy), Article 19 (freedom of speech) and Article 19A (the right to information) of the Constitution of Pakistan. These are also against the principles of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Pakistan is a signatory to.
Another worrying aspect of the newly formed rules is that these go way beyond the scope of the laws — the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996), and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 (XL of 2016). The rules, for instance, provide for the office a National Coordinator for which there is no provision in the two laws. Similarly, the responsibilities of the national coordinator and his powers to identify and designate the social media contents as harmful are both vague and arbitrary. Concentrating too much power in the hands of a single individual without clearly laying down the definition of harmful contents is a dictatorial arrangement which goes against the letter and the spirit of a consultative parliamentary democracy that the Constitution of Pakistan provides for.
IRADA is also concerned that the state’s apparatus will use the new rules in the same way that it has applied PECA which was originally meant to be a tool in the fight against cyber terrorism and hate speech but is increasingly being used to curb political dissent. The rules have the potential to give the state a control over the personal online communications as well as access to private data without having to follow any legal or judicial procedures. Since the laws require social media companies to register locally, set up their offices in Pakistan, base their servers in the country and, thus, follow all the local laws allow the government not just to force these companies to share any data that any government agency requires. These also give the government the power to shut down these companies as and when it so desires. The stringent nature of the rules might, indeed, lead these companies to leave Pakistan thereby leaving the country in an information black hole.
IRADA rejects the draconian regulations aimed at severely hampering social media platforms where over 60 million Pakistani digital citizens express their constitutional rights to freedom of expression under Article 19 and right to information under Article 19-A and demands that the government must withdraw these controversial rules immediately. Instead, if so necessary, it should initiate a consultative process to devise rules that genuinely seek to prevent the potential of online harm to individual citizens and vulnerable communities. IRADA also urges the parliament, including all political parties represented in the Senate, National Assembly and the provincial assemblies, to reject and resist these draconian new measures.