Pakistan: Internet filtering must go
ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by reports that the Pakistan Ministry of Information Technology’s recently issued a statement announcing that they had ‘resolved’ the issue of the YouTube ban by installing Internet filters. Far from offering a viable solution, internet filtering poses significant threats to freedom of expression online.
ARTICLE 19 reminds the Pakistani government that filtering Internet content is an extremely serious restriction on freedom of expression and as such may only be justified if it strictly complies with the three-part test under international law. The four special mandates on freedom of expression clearly stated in their 2011 Joint Declaration on freedom of expression and the Internet that “content filtering systems which are imposed by a government or commercial service provider and which are not end-user controlled are a form of prior censorship and are not justifiable as a restriction on freedom of expression”.
Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression confirmed in his 2011 report that the mandatory blocking of websites can only be justified if the measure is provided by law and is necessary and proportionate to the aims listed under Article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular, the Special Rapporteur emphasised that the determination of what content should be blocked should be undertaken by a competent judicial authority or independent regulatory body.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the blocking of entire websites and blanket content filtering should be considered a disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression. The risks of over-blocking or under blocking are well-documented and restoring legitimate sites that have been mistakenly blocked can be a difficult process. In our view, filtering can only be justified for purely technical reasons.
In this instance, it appears that the Pakistan Government is looking to implement blanket filtering of content on the Internet. This is emphatically not a proportionate response to concerns arising from one particular website (YouTube). Furthermore, the determination of what would be blocked or filtered would plainly be left in the hands of the government or the company providing or implementing the filters in breach of the international standards on freedom expression outlined above.
The filtering of HTTPS traffic that is seemingly intended by the Pakistani Ministry of IT would also have severe implications for the right to privacy online, as this kind of traffic cannot be filtered unless a session is intercepted and unencrypted. In other words, the installation of filters would result in the surveillance of all HTTPS traffic and sessions, such as the sending of emails and online banking. This would also have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression and the free flow of information and ideas online as people are much more likely to speak freely if they know that their privacy is protected.
If the media reports are confirmed, ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the installation of filters by the Ministry of IT, which displays utter disregard for the fundamental rights of Pakistani citizens, especially their rights to freedom of expression and privacy under international law.
ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the Pakistani Government to:
Immediately abandon any plans to implement internet filters at network level
Heed ARTICLE 19’s earlier recommendations regarding the provisions of the Pakistan (Re-Organisations) Act 1996
ARTICLE 19 also notes that the UN Special Rapporteur has recommended that intermediaries should only implement restrictions on freedom of expression after judicial intervention. We therefore strongly encourage Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) to refrain from implementing the filters, since this would clearly amount to a disproportionate restriction on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.