The Internet Policymaking Landscape in Pakistan

Posted in

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.