Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

Pakistan: Ban on internet encryption a violation of freedom of expression

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 2 September 2011
Citation / Document Symbol Barbora Bukovska
Cite as Article 19, Pakistan: Ban on internet encryption a violation of freedom of expression, 2 September 2011, Barbora Bukovska, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has served legal directives to all internet service providers in the country requiring that they implement an earlier regulation banning in the name of anti-terrorism all internet encryption. ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All regard the regulation, and related provisions in the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act of 1996, to be in violation of international legal standards on the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy, and call on the government to amend the laws and retract the notices served.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) directive, issued on 21 July 2011, orders internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile phone companies to implement the Monitoring & Reconciliation of International Telephone Traffic Regulations 2010, by prohibiting and reporting all users sending encrypted information over the internet.

Encryption is used in Pakistan to provide secure banking and e-commerce, and to bypass the PTA's regular blocking of websites.  In 2011, for example, the PTA blocked access to Rolling Stone magazine reportedly for its claims on how much of Pakistan's budget goes to the military. Last year the PTA also blocked Facebook for several weeks. The Directive is being put into practice with serious implications on Pakistan's 20 million internet users.

The ban on encryption will be particularly dangerous for human rights defenders, female internet users and larger civil society movements as they face increasing self-censorship and reprisals for what they say.

The PTA directive is not the only measure that allows interference with the right to freedom of expression and right to privacy in Pakistan. Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act of 1996 allows the federal government to authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages, or to trace calls through any telecommunication system in "the interest of national security or in the apprehension of any offence." The PTA directive also enforces another regulation, issued in March 2011, that requires ISPs to allow for real time surveillance of all communications and monitor and keep all internet traffic including websites visited and emails sent.  

The PTA has based the prohibition of encryption on the need to stop terrorists from communicating in secret using VPN technology. Banning encryption will allow for the routine surveillance of all internet users by the security services.

ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All remind the PTA that under international legal standards, restriction of the right to freedom of expression for reasons of national security must meet certain conditions known as the "three-part test" developed by the UN Human Rights Committee. National security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations, such as in this case, and may only be invoked when there exists adequate safeguards and effective remedies against abuse. As ARTICLE 19 outlined in the Johannesburg Principles, developed in 1995 by a group of international experts, expression may be regarded as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; it is likely to incite such violence; and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.

These and other requirements are therefore not met. ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All call on the PTA to retract the notices served and urge the Pakistani government to immediately amend the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act.

Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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