Pakistani activists move court against website blocks

The court in Sindh has served notice to the government

A court in Pakistan issued notices to the government this week after seven persons moved the court against alleged arbitrary acts of online censorship and website blocking by Pakistani authorities, one of the petitioners said.

Their bid to bring the blocking of access to websites under judicial review comes in the wake of a move by the country in February to set up a national URL (uniform resource locator) filtering and blocking system. The RFP (request for proposal) for the system was put out by the National ICT R&D Fund of the country's ministry of IT.

The petitioners asked the court to direct the government that any blocking should be done according to the rules, and after affected parties are given a notice and an opportunity to be heard.

While serving notice on the secretary of the ministry of IT and telecommunications, and the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the High Court of Sindh is said to have ordered the PTA not to block any website in the interim other than in accordance with the provisions of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996, which requires among other things that persons affected are given due notice and provided with an opportunity to be heard.

Although there was no reference to the RFP for the filtering system in the court notice, Sana Saleem, CEO of local civil rights group Bolo Bhi, and a petitioner, said in an email that "the order is broader than the RFP and calls for all censored content to come under judicial review, making the acquisition of the URL filtering and blocking system useless."

A PTA spokesman said he was aware of the court order. The decision to block any website is taken by a high-level committee consisting of representatives of the ministry of IT and other ministries, he said. "We are there as an observer and we then issue the instructions to the service providers," he added. IT ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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