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Bytes for All challenges censorship and surveillance in Pakistani court
To publicly challenge increasing censorship, surveillance and internet filtering in Pakistan, APC member Bytes for All (B4A), in collaboration with Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI) lodged a petition in the Lahore High Court in January 2013. The petition claims that the bans imposed on various websites were in blatant violation of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right to information under Article-19 and Article-19A of the Constitution of Pakistan.
In what has been called the “Net Freedom petition,” both organisations demand protection of citizens’ communication rights. Such demands go very much along the lines of APC’s long-term advocacy work. APC fully supports this petition which will contribute to the development of a free and open internet.
In the petition, B4A and MLDI called into question a number of actions and policies practiced by the Pakistani Ministry of Interior and Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA), declaring these actions unconstitutional. Both organisations claim that while arguing that the censorship measures protect citizens and national security interests, the ministry and PTA are violating several rights guaranteed to citizens by both the Pakistani constitution and international charters and agreements that Pakistan has signed. These violations of citizens’ rights include undermining the right to freedom of expression through censorship and limiting access to information by increasing surveillance and arbitrary blocking of communications.
In particular, B4A and MLDI pointed out the disastrous and illegal consequences of implementing kill-switches on cellular networks (1), blank blocking of online services, and distributing spy technology to lower level functionaries of both mentioned institutions that, according to the petition, enables them to hack on to and fish into users’ personal email accounts, computers and smart phones. There is a blatant flaw in the official justification that entire online services must be blocked in order to protect citizens from harmful content because blocking only specific URLs would slow down internet connectivity in the country. Such complete blocking of YouTube occurred for example on 17 September 2012 when the website was unaccessible from Pakistan because “Blasphemous content will not be accepted at any cost,” as Pakistan’s Prime Minister was reported saying in reference to the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims (2). The petition points out that per-URL blocking is widely used in other countries and blanket censorship of entire services is not only abusive, but also very damaging because of the role such services play in the areas of education and commerce, for example.
During the hearing at the High Court in Lahore on 12 April 2013, the petition and both petitioning organisations were challenged by officials from the Ministry of Interior and PTA. Petitioners have been criticised for appealing to higher authorities rather than petitioning directly the ministry and PTA. Some sections of their petition were referred to as “treasonous,” a serious accusation with which the judge did not agree.
The Lahore case brings to the fore the freedom and independence of the Pakistani legal system. At the hearing, the judge confirmed all citizens’ right to appeal to any authority they consider relevant to address their complain. B4A and MLDI are fighting for all Pakistanis to be able to exercise the rights given to them by their country’s constitution. They warn of severe risks of any state institution or repressive body being given carte blanch to arbitrarily spy on citizens, deny people access to information or cut off communities from means of communication.
APC has a long-standing position on upholding human rights online including the rights of privacy for citizens and against censorship. We support the arguments from B4A and MLDI that states must not play a protectionist and repressive role, deciding which information is apt for citizens and which is not, especially without recourse or accountability. APC supports B4A and MLDI in the defense of Pakistani citizens’ communication rights which are explicitly stated in APC’s Internet Rights Charter3. By defending principles in the charter, B4A and MLDI defend an open and free internet for Pakistanis and all users, worldwide and one that will uphold the rule of law and human rights for all.
The next hearing of the case will be on 26 April 2013 and APC will be closely watching the case, supporting Bytes for All in its aims to hold the government of Pakistan accountable to its commitments to human rights.