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June 11, 2014: Representatives of Bolo Bhi and MOITT attend hearing at Federal Ombudsman’s office Re: Internet Surveillance 

On February 12, 2014, Bolo Bhi filed Freedom of Information requests, directed at the Ministry of Information Technology, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation Limited (PTCL).  The requests were filed under the Freedom of Information Ordinance (FOI) 2002.

MOIT was sent three requests:

1) Directives for blocked websites

 2) Web filtering equipment

3) Internet surveillance

Under the Ordinance, the Ministry had 21 days to respond, which it didn’t, following which we proceeded to lodge a complaint regarding the non-provision of information with the Federal Ombudsman. Letters were issued by the Ombudsman’s office to the MOITT to respond to the FOI requests. On May 2, MOITT responded citing Section 8 (e),(f) and (i) of the FOI Ordinance as the reason for nondisclosure & non-provision of information for two of our requests i.e. directives for blocked websites and web-filtering equipment. To the third request, on Internet surveillance, MOITT responded as follows:

“The requisite information does not pertain to the Ministry of Information Technology and as such it has no information on the subject matter, therefore ‘Nil’ is submitted.”

On May 18, we wrote to the Ombudsman again, stating we were not satisfied with the responses received to all three of our requests and asked for a hearing with the MOITT. The Ombudsman’s office, in a letter to us dated June 3, called a hearing with MOITT for June 11. This hearing pertained to our request for Internet surveillance specifically, we are still waiting for a hearing to be called for the other two requests filed.

During the hearing, members of Bolo Bhi cited the Citizen Lab report indicating FinFisher command and control servers had been found on PTCL’s servers. We mentioned that the company selling this equipment stated it sold only to “government and law-enforcement agencies.” The purpose of the request is to verify whether the FinFisher is in place or not by a Pakistani authority, or is it another country’s government using it to spy on us?

MOIT officials maintained that this matter was not related to MOIT and they had no knowledge of it.

The Ombudsman’s representative conducting the hearing felt, since this was a technical matter, more details were required for better understanding so all parties could bring themselves up to date with the matter. We have been asked to submit a request to the government to provide information after supplying the departments with the following:

1) Citizen Lab report

2) Gamma Group International’s policy stating it only sells to governments and law-enforcement agencies

While this case was closed, we will be filing a letter with the Ombudsman’s office for hearing of the matter again after the material has been placed on record. During the hearing, we also supplied both the Ombudsman’s representative and officials from MOITT with a detailed legal brief on why we find MOITT’s non-disclosure citing Section 8 of the FOI Ordinance to our other two requests unsatisfactory and inconsistent with the provisions of the 2002 FOI Ordinance and the Constitution of Pakistan.

[ Read a legal interpretation of Section 8 of the FOI 2002 Ordinance here]

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based, APNS-awardwinning journalist. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi. She has a masters in English literature. She worked with Newsline from July 2007-January 2012 and taught literature to grades 9-12. She served as an amicus curiae in a case filed in the Lahore High Court in 2013, challenging the ban on YouTube, and is currently a petitioner on behalf of Bolo Bhi in a case filed in the Islamabad High Court challenging government's censorship on the Internet and the powers of the regulator. She can be found on Twitter: @FariehaAziz and reached via email: farieha@bolobhi.org

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