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Digital dystopia


February 18, 2020

Naya Pakistan has been a terrible joke played on the general populous. We were promised, among many other promises that remain unfulfilled, a “digital Pakistan”.

We were promised transparency and accountability by the Imran Khan-led government but we have hardly seen that. In fact, there are many who feel that Pakistan today is experiencing an even worse form of repression than it did in the 1980s.

One recent example of that is the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, approved by the federal cabinet on January 28, 2020. The cabinet thought it appropriate to pass rules concerning the protection of citizens without having a debate on these rules in the National Assembly, where representatives of the people sit and discuss the peoples’ issues.

No civil society organizations, NGOs or legal experts were consulted in preparing these rules, which raises the question: who in the government thought they had the capacity to draft rules in the area of digital rights when no experts from this field were ever consulted? So, apart from the glaring lack of expertise seen in the Rules, the first obvious problem here is the secrecy that surrounded the drafting and passing of these Rules: that is the first indication of a cause for concern.

In a country like Pakistan where there is no data protection law and our data is freely and readily available and accessible to anyone who wants to manipulate/abuse it, requiring social media companies to decrypt content and share information about users with the government is something that should disturb us all. These Rules are not for our protection but for our exploitation, by coercing social media companies into engaging in content removal in line with what the state arbitrarily deems appropriate and inappropriate.

These Rules are a clear breach of Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan, which safeguards the right to expression (subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law), as well as Article 14 of the constitution, which protects our privacy. By monitoring, tracking and stifling expression online, these Rules could have a chilling effect on other rights as well, for instance, the right to association. We have just recently already seen the Pakistani state not only misuse technology against its own citizens but also behave negligently with our data and personal information.

While the Student Solidarity March was ongoing in Lahore, the Punjab government used the Safe City Cameras to identify peaceful protesters and register sedition cases against them. This is an example of active violations of rights by the state. In January 2019, several news outlets reported on the compromised Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) CCTV cameras, as private pictures of citizens were leaked and are even available online today.

Last year, during an event on making use of technology for justice in Pakistan, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry was asked about the government’s plan for data protection in Pakistan, considering that there is no data protection law in Pakistan. Mr Chaudhry’s response was a signal of problems to come: he deemed the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to be a data protection law, when it is the furthest thing from it.

The fact that there is a glaring lack of capacity in the government on anything related to digital security and digital rights is hugely problematic. In fact, those who formulated these Rules did so with an obvious lack of understanding of the area of digital rights and security as well as a complete lack of awareness of our own constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights.

These Rules are also in breach of Pakistan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and therefore linked to Pakistan’s GSP+ Status. Moreover, they add to a list of problematic censorship tools used by the state against its own people. This is a huge concern because there are several agencies of the state that have access to our very private data. If there is a security lapse in any of these agencies (which is highly likely considering what has happened with the PSCA and NADRA in the past), each and every citizen’s data is compromised.

As of 2017, it has been said that data has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. With a state that has access to a huge amount of citizens’ data already, a key question that we must ask is: why did the government feel the need to secretly push through these Rules? What’s in the pipeline for the government with respect to restricting expression online and offline? How much further will it go? How far off are we from our Orwellian nightmare now?

In light of this situation, where the state is completely unprepared and unwilling to safeguard our data, under law and in practice, these Rules must be strongly opposed by civil society, lawyers and digital rights experts.

The writer is founding partner of Mazari-Hazir Advocates & LegalConsultants.

Email: [email protected]