Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 has been removed from MoITT website

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) has removed the “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” from its website.

According to senior officials at the Ministry the government has reportedly suspended “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020”, following massive backlash from different segments of society, foreign social media companies as well as the United State (US).

Approved by the federal cabinet on January 28, 2020, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication through a notification stated that in exercise of the powers conferred under clause (c) of sub-section (2A) of section 8, sub-section (1) of section 54 and clause (ag) of sub-section (2) of section 57 of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996) and the sections 35, 37, 48 and 51 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, (XL of 2016) the federal government has made the rules called the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 and would come into force at once.

Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 has been removed from MoITT website

The notified rules were made available on the MoITT website. However, soon after the notification the government came under sever criticism from different sections of society while observing that the rules are in contradiction with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) as well as Constitution.

The rules are no more available on the Ministry website. A visit to the MoITT website revealed that rules framed back in 2000, 2004 and 2006 are still available but rules approved and notified around 30 days ago are no more there.

Critics observed that the rules were aimed at controlling freedom of expression and silencing their voices which would also impact digital growth in the country.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) expressed its concern over the rules and wrote a letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying that these rules will severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy. In fact, the rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. Social media companies including facebook, google and twitter had warned to abandon work in the country.

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The United States responding on the rules observed that the “new restrictions” on social media platforms in Pakistan could be a “setback to freedom of expression and development of digital economy”. In a statement on Twitter, the United States Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, called upon the government of Pakistan to encourage discussion with stakeholders on the matter.

The matter was also raised in different parliamentary panels where along with the parliamentarians from opposition parties, some government parliamentarians also criticized the rules. The MoITT failed to convince National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication which sought briefing from the Law and Justice Division.

Following sever criticism, Prime Minister Imran Khan directed for a broad-based consultation with key stakeholder and the MoITT through a statement informed that in pursuance of the Prime Minister’s directions, a Committee has been formed to start consultation process on Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020.

The Committee comprises Amir Azeem Bajwa, Chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (Convener), Eazaz Aslam Dar, Additional Secretary Ministry of IT & Telecom, Tania Aidrus, Member of Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit, Prime Minister Office, Islamabad and Dr. Arslan Khalid, Focal Person to the Prime Minister on Digital Media, Prime Minister’s Office, Islamabad. The Committee will undertake extensive and broad-based consultation process with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies about these Rules.  The process will be completed within two months.

The first meeting of the Consultation Committee on Citizen Protection (against online harm) Rules 2020 was held on Monday at PTA Headquarters. In the meeting the Committee decided to immediately initiate a broad-based, open consultation process with all stakeholders including civil society, human and digital rights groups, social media platforms (technology companies) and media etc to solicit constructive input to address the concerns expressed by different forums.

A questionnaire seeking input from all stakeholders will be posted on Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) website. A tentative schedule for consultation process will also be posted on PTA website, accordingly. The Committee encourages and solicits feedback from all stake-holders including general public during the consultation process.

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