Islamabad - The Islamabad High Court (IHC) Monday halted the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) from issuing any directions to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for blocking some websites or pages without approval of the court.

A single bench of IHC comprising Justice Athar Minallah issued the stay orders and restrained the IMCEW from blocking any website without court’s permission till the next date of hearing in this matter.

The IHC bench issued these directives in a petition of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) ‘Bolo Bhi’ working for the rights of internet users. It has challenged before the IHC legality of the IMCEW and prayed to the court to declare the said IMCEW as unconstitutional.

Justice Athar also issued notices to the secretary ministry of information technology, IMCEW and chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and directed the respondents to submit their reply within fortnight.

The petitioner adopted before the court that IMCEW was constituted through an executive order in 2006 and since then it has been issuing orders for content takedown. It housed under the ministry of information technology and telecommunications (MOITT) while the secretary IT acts as its convener.

The counsel for the petitioner contended that the workings of the committee have been non-transparent and dubious to say the least in its eight years of existence. There is no public record of its members, meetings or directives.

He said that the IMCEW issues directives to the PTA, which are enforced by the PTA through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This year it has been noted that PTA has been routing IMCEW directives to companies such as Twitter and Facebook, to restrict content in Pakistan, and some of these requests have been complied with too. He added that the compliance indicates that the IMCEW is being viewed as the ‘competent’ authority to deal with issues of content removal and restriction in Pakistan, that its directive are viewed as enforceable and supported by local law.

The petitioner argued that the IMCEW as an executive body constituted through an executive order has arbitrarily conferred upon itself powers. He informed the IHC that the committee is prone to political hijacking and pressure, and has been used to personal and political ends to stem ‘undesirable’ and dissenting opinion. Facebook’s most recent transparency report reveals 1,773 pieces of content were restricted by Facebook in compliance with Pakistan government’s requests, not only on grounds of blasphemy but also criticism of the state.

He maintained that there is no law in Pakistan that declares criticism of the government illegal in Pakistan. And interpreting what constitutes criticism of the state does not fall within the ambit of the IMCEW, PTA or anybody in Pakistan for that matter.

The counsel said that the IMCEW has become a prime example of arbitrary and ad-hoc executive action and abuse of power. Therefore, he prayed to the court to declare the constitution of IMCEW against the Constitution, Telecom Act and Rules of Business 1973.

Bolo Bhi further prayed before the bench to declare the impugned notification issued on August 29, 2006, the Internet censorship regime established pursuant to it and the actions of respondents aimed at regulating, blocking and censoring Internet content and access to it illegal, unconstitutional.

The petitioner urged the court to declare all orders, directives and notifications issued by IMCEW and directions issued by respondents IT ministry and PTA in pursuance of such orders, directives and notifications are illegal, unconstitutional.

The petitioner further asked the court to order PTA to recall all orders issued to ISPs to blocks or bans websites and URLs that have been issued in excess of authority vested in it under the Telecom Act, dismantle any filtering devices installed by ISPs or telecom service providers to obstruct access to Internet content without the permission of consumers.