The Internet Policymaking Landscape in Pakistan

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Usama Khilji & Saleha Zahid

As smartphones and mobile data rates have become cheaper, internet access in Pakistan has expanded rapidly and more and more Pakistanis are now online. This has increased people’s access to information, and provided a much needed platform for citizens to express opinions through criticism of state policies, dissent, and political commentary. For a state machinery like Pakistan’s that is not shy of clamping down on press freedom, the internet poses a new challenge: how can the internet be regulated, and information be controlled?

Internet governance today is a global challenge, especially with regards to the balance between civil liberties and security. This is concerning in a country like Pakistan which has faced the challenge of local terrorism since soon after 9/11. However, the government’s actions against online actors have largely targeted critics of the state rather than violent, non-state actors that use social media for disseminating hate speech.

This is the first study focused on Pakistan that attempts to map the country’s internet policymaking process, identify its stakeholders, and analyse the strengths and shortcomings of each. The main bodies for law and policy making related to the internet in Pakistan are the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom (MoITT), the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), and the National Assembly and Senate Standing Committees on Information Technology and Telecom. Further, the study looks at specific cases in internet policy making, such as the processes surrounding both the recently passed Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, and the Internet Clearing House (ICH) issue. This research also chronicles the history of internet policymaking in Pakistan, starting with the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) Act of 2002.

Via interviews with key stakeholders, this study reveals Pakistan’s ad-hoc, reactionary, internet policymaking, as well as a state apparatus, including the bureaucracy, politicians, and the judiciary, that has little technological understanding and hence mandates orders that are ineffective, undemocratic, and draconian. The blockages of Facebook in 2010, and of YouTube in 2008 and from 2013 to 2016 are testimony to the government’s tendency toward knee-jerk reactions to perceived challenges online.

The main questions explored in this research include: what is the internet policymaking process in Pakistan? Is it democratic? How inclusive is it? Do policymakers and legislators invite and include public input? Does the process involve multiple stakeholders such as academics, technology experts, businesses, internet users, and activists? The study also explores whether the laws and policies related to the internet in Pakistan are constitutional, in line with international standards, in support of fundamental rights, and effective. The case study of the Inter Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) shows how a body formed by the executive was eventually found unconstitutional and disbanded on court orders.

The key findings of the report indicate that the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom lacks the trust of stakeholders, that there is consensus among the politicians related to blockage of content that is blasphemy and pornographic, and that long-term strategic plans for internet and telecom policy in Pakistan are absent. The study concludes with recommendations for a transparent policy- and law-making process that includes all stakeholders.

To read the full report, please click here.

Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns on Human Rights Case Study: Telenor Pakistan

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//A new report published by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), with support from the CGCS Internet Policy Observatory, highlights the practice of mobile network shutdowns in Pakistan and the wider implications for human rights of such practices by governments around the world. Click here to read the full report.

While many States recognize the economic and social benefits of investing in and improving access to Information and Communication Technology (ICTs), some are reaching for the communications “off” switch at times of civil unrest, or in the name of national security. Although country-wide network shutdowns on the scale of Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011 are extremely rare, shutdowns may target a specific geographical area of mobile coverage, internet access, or a specific service such as Facebook or WhatsApp. This can potentially impact millions of people, as happened in the Gujarat state in India recently.

However, network shutdowns adversely affect a range of human rights, and in the view of many experts, such shutdowns are neither necessary nor proportionate responses to potential violent activities. Experts are concerned that network shutdowns are becoming the norm, rather than an exception. They say shutdowns are being utilized as the main strategy to curb terrorism, when instead states can do much more to improve other methods of investigation.

Network shutdowns indeed affect freedom of expression, but they also impact other rights, including life, access to health services, education, and work. In particular, IHRB’s report stresses the importance of ensuring access to emergency services (ambulance, police and fire) even at the time of a shutdown so that these services can continue to operate. The report also highlights how disruption has a wider impact on companies, schools, universities and colleges, and online commercial and public services.

This study was published by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), with support from the CGCS Internet Policy Observatory. Click here to read the full report.

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Public Perception of Internet Freedom and Censorship in Pakistan

Arzak Khan, Director and Co-Founder of Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP), discusses his research study which aims to investigate in-depth the links between internet usage and public perception towards internet censorship and policymaking in Pakistan.

The aim of this research study is to investigate in-depth the links between internet usage and public perception towards internet censorship and policymaking in Pakistan. Defending the right to freedom of expression has been a long standing tradition in many developed countries, but that has not always been the case in many developing countries where government restrictions on all traditional media are often accepted as a part of life. However, with many Pakistanis getting access to the internet for the first time and becoming connected to a global community, things may be beginning to change. Evidence from the Global South suggests that as a country’s population becomes increasingly connected to the Web, there is growing support for ending government controls and censorship. It is the aim of this project to thoroughly investigate these assumptions and uncover what demand exists for internet freedom and other internet policies.

The increasing use of the internet for democratic movements has resulted in governments around the world cracking down on the web in the form of blanket censorship. Most governments in developing countries such as Pakistan want to regulate the Internet in the way television is regulated. This includes having tighter control mechanisms in the guise of policies protecting national security, religion and society. Before the “Arab Spring,” the Pakistani government was planning on promoting the internet for socio-economic development. However, these policies have not moved forward substantially and broadband diffusion is not taking off as had been predicted. Furthermore, government censorship of the internet has been increasing with the blocking of websites such as YouTube, certain blogs, and Facebook pages. New filtering technologies and mechanisms are being put in place that block not just porn and blasphemous material but also political content and events. Anonymous proxy…

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