Pakistan: ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All condemn proposed ban on instant messaging

Islamabad, October 10, 2013: ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All (Pakistan) condemn the proposed three-month blanket ban on instant messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services in Sindh Province, Pakistan. The proposal, issued by the Sindh province authorities last week, should be retracted immediately as it is incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression.
On Thursday 3 October 2013, the Information Minister for Sindh province forwarded a summary to the Federal Ministry of Interior to impose a three-month blanket ban on instant messaging and VoIP services.
The reason for the proposed ban was to combat terrorism and safeguard national security. The Sindh Information Minister said it was needed because Sindh law enforcement agencies are unable to monitor VoIP services, which are increasingly being used by “criminal elements and terrorists”.
The proposed ban is a disproportionate and overly broad measure. It will curb the fundamental rights of people in Sindh province and undermine the use of widespread communication platforms. Instant messaging and VoIP services, such as Skype, Viber, Tango and WhatsApp, are increasingly popular with Pakistani smartphone users looking for affordable means of communication. All of these services are now under threat of being suspended. The Sindh province authorities have not indicated how they will carry out this proposal: whether, for example, they will use filtering or blocking.
If implemented, the ban will affect the entire Sindh province, which has a population of over 30.6 million and an estimated 4.5 million Internet users. Moreover, the ban will have adverse consequences throughout the country, stifling the communication of individuals, human rights groups and businesses.
Incompatibility with international human rights standards
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed and ratified by Pakistan in 2010, requires the government to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Furthermore, in a landmark resolution adopted by consensus in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed the principle that the right to freedom of expression applies online as it does offline (A/HRC/20/13).
Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression and information must comply with the three-part test under paragraph 3 of Article 19 of the ICCPR and be:
  • provided for by law
  • pursue a legitimate aim; and
  • be necessary and proportionate.
Therefore, although the right to freedom of expression and information may be restricted in order to protect public order and national security, the means used by the State to protect its people from terrorist threats must be proportionate to this aim.  
ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All recall that the treaty monitoring body for the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee, affirmed in its General Comment No. 34 that “restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs or any other internet-based electronic or other such information dissemination system, including systems to support such communication … are only permissible to the extent that they are compatible with paragraph 3 [of paragraph 19 of the ICCPR].” Importantly, the Committee stated that “generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems are not compatible with paragraph 3.”
Moreover, in his 2011 thematic report relating to the Internet (A/HRC/17/27), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression emphasized that cutting users off from the Internet, regardless of the justification used, is a disproportionate restriction on the right to freedom of expression (Para. 78).  Further, the Special Rapporteur also stated that:
[P]rotection of national security or countering terrorism cannot be used to justify restricting the right to expression unless it can be demonstrated that: (a) the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; (b) it is likely to incite such violence; and (c) there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence. (Para 73).
ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All also note that the proposed ban could easily be circumvented by determined users. So the measure is not only disproportionate, it is also likely to be completely ineffectual. 
Crackdown on Internet freedoms in Pakistan
ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All are extremely concerned about the proposed ban in the light of the continuous abuses of the right to freedom of expression and Internet freedoms in Pakistan. These restrictions, claimed to be necessary in order to protect national security or safeguard the country against terrorism, have actually infringed upon fundamental rights. Examples of these restrictions include:
  • the adoption of the Fair Trial Act of 2012, which vests security agencies with unprecedented powers regarding citizen surveillance
  • evidence of Netsweeper being used for web filtering and content censoring
  • the repeated use of  ‘kill-switch’ tactics, a complete shutdown of all cellular phone networks,  in several parts of the country.
ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All demand that the Sindh Government and federal government authorities revoke the proposed ban. We also demand that they refrain from adopting such measures in the future. In addition, Pakistani government authorities must ensure that any measures that they introduce to combat terrorism threats comply with international human rights standards.