Space, online

January 3, 2021

Increasing surveillance capacities and a litany of state and legal interventions, and the potential of collective action in 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has centred the importance of digital spaces in our lives, irrevocably changing the way we work, study, communicate and access basic services. As schools and universities across the country shut down to stymie the spread of the virus, the problem of unequal access to technologies and internet services was underscored by the experience of students from lower-income backgrounds and the peripheries. Images of students from Gilgit-Baltistan having to traverse mountains and long distances to access internet signals were shared widely as students protested the inequalities inherent in virtual classrooms. Access to internet is intrinsically tied to one’s class and geographical locations, however, there are also political dynamics at play as some areas of the country are denied access to mobile, fast-paced internet on the pretext of national security considerations. Access to the internet and digital technologies should be a fundamental right and non-discriminatory.

Technology was leveraged across the world to help contain and track the spread of Covid-19, and Pakistan was no different. Contact tracing technology through the use of mobile phone applications and geo-location data was used by the government in the early stages of its coronavirus response. The National Information Technology Board (NITB) and the Ministry of National Health Services developed the COVID-19 Gov PK application that has been installed more than 500,000 times. The application relies on geo-location data, as opposed to using Bluetooth data which has emerged as an international best practice given its less intrusive data privacy implications. Furthermore, the application lacked any semblance of an adequate privacy policy or security protocols. All in all, the application has been a non-starter in the fight against Covid-19 since not a large enough number of citizens have downloaded it. No data on the number of active installations is available. More alarmingly, the prime minister revealed that the government had also employed a system originally developed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to track terrorists.

Incremental increases in the surveillance capacities of the state during an emergency like a pandemic can have long-term implications for the privacy of citizens, especially given a complete absence of regulatory framework for privacy. A draft Personal Data Protection Bill was made public by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) in April 2020 and public comments were invited. Many civil society organisations pointed out that the bill gave federal government vast powers to make exemptions, essentially allowing the state to exempt itself from the ambit of the Act. Additionally, the proposed Personal Data Protection Authority is not independent of the government’s administrative control, calling into question its ability to hold the state accountable. This bill has yet to be presented in parliament and there is no indication, so far, that civil society’s concerns will be taken into account.

Further on the legislative front, the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020 were notified and gazetted by the cabinet in October but made public in November. An earlier iteration of the rules, called the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 were introduced in February but soon withdrawn by the prime minister after unanimous pushback from the tech sector and digital rights activists. The new rules are no different, retaining many of the same draconian provisions and passed without any meaningful consultation. The rules empower the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to remove ‘illegal content’ defined as any content against the “glory of Islam”, “public order”, “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan”, and “decency and morality”. The rules also place onerous obligations on social media companies: asking them to locate offices within the territories of Pakistan, shift servers to Pakistan (data localisation), and remove content within 24 hours of reporting (and in some cases six hours). These rules also threaten the privacy of citizens by obligating social media companies to share user data in “decrypted, readable and comprehensible information” with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), compromising the security of end-to-end encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp.

Legal experts have pointed out that the rules are a clear case of excessive delegated legislation, as they expand the existing powers granted under Section 37 of the Prevention of Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA). While Section 37 itself violates freedom of expression, the rules are ultra vires of the parent Act and thus have been subject to several legal challenges in front of the Islamabad High Court.

The rules are even more of an affront to online freedoms given the manner in which the PTA has exercised its powers of blocking entire platforms such as PUBG and TikTok this year on vague grounds such as “decency” and “morality”. These measures were arbitrary, disproportionate and speak of the excessive powers already vested with the PTA. These bans have created uncertainty in the digital economy of the country, with major tech companies such as Google and Facebook openly reconsidering their decision to operate in Pakistan.

Lastly, the excesses of the FIA and weaponisation of the PECA to silence dissent and the voices of women have been a dark spot this year. The use of criminal defamation under Section 20 of the PECA has resulted in FIRs against several journalists and in some of the prominent #MeToo cases in the country. These and many other instances have resulted in Pakistan being ranked as “Not Free” in the Freedom on the Net Report this year.

The litany of legislative and state interventions in online spaces has cast a pallour of despondency over the future of digital rights. However, we often miss the pockets of resistance organising and communities that mark our digital landscape. Bans on popular applications such as the PUBG were lifted largely due to campaigns by Twitter users and the gaming community. While the state and patriarchy loom large with defamation lawsuits, women haven’t ceased to raise the issue of gender-based violence on social media. Progressive political spaces continue to thrive online, raising issues that the mainstream media chooses to remain silent on. As 2021 has arrived, it is time that we resist to preserve our freedoms online and collectivise to win back spaces we have ceded. We need to start viewing digital rights as human rights.

We often miss the pockets of resistance organising and communities that mark our digital landscape. Bans on popular applications such as the PUBG were lifted largely due to pressure campaigns by Twitter users and the gaming community.

The writer is the director for research and policy at Digital Rights Foundation

Looking towards 2021 and beyond, we asked organisers and experts on how they envision the internet as a space of politics, speech and resistance:

Tooba Syed

political organiser

“An activist’s work doesn’t stop rather is accelerated in times of crises. The pandemic is one such crisis for us, from setting up mutual aid and support networks to forming solidarities between various struggles is what activism and organising during pandemic has been like. During the pandemic, a lot of the organising work also took place through online platforms to crowd source contributions for mutual-aid and support networks. The echoes of people’s sufferings could be heard in the online spaces which led to mobilisation for some of the major protests while the digital divide became more apparent in the peripheries of the country. The pandemic took off the mask off the capitalism and completely exposed the unjust system we all live under. Post-pandemic we should take it upon ourselves to bring an end to the system of exploitation and oppression, to fight together and collectively with all our differences for the world we and our children deserve.”

Leena Ghani

activist and organiser

“I can’t think back to a time when I felt safe online and I understand that online spaces, much like any spaces, can’t be completely safe. The attacks online have increased in the past couple of years. Most women only feel safe in private groups even though those spaces don’t provide the kind of safety that one would hope. Trolls attacking feminists through fake accounts have increased and become more concerted in their attacks. The best defence to such trolls is to be organised which is hard in a world that is changing every day.

As women we are always told not to speak up to be heard. Which is why the state and all its institution feel threatened by women’s voices online and try to silence those by all means. So, the danger and threats come from not just nameless faces behind their screens but all patriarchal institutions. And like all spaces, online spaces can only become safe when there are more women reclaiming them. It all comes down to organization, structure and how we tell our stories.”

Zoya Rehman

researcher and organiser

“The pandemic has caused an ongoing moment of rupture in our understanding of what political organising is and exasperated existing inequalities in the world and Pakistan. Political organising seems to be in flux due to these ruptures requiring us to stay at home and take care of our loved ones, so the home has taken centre stage. It has caused us to pause and contemplate about what political organising should look like now. While online mobilising has become inevitable, even for the people who are generally hesitant about it, there is a lot of knee-jerk work happening rather than organisers thinking about what they should do in the long-term. If we are going to be organising online in the future, we also need to be cognisant of the drawbacks such as how optics and visibility online become more important than actual work. Also, online spaces have become more vitriolic and fraught thanks to the pandemic and more people being online, how do we compel others to take responsibility for their actions and how to hold each other accountable? How do we continue to have dialogue and educate each other and reflect on the politics we do?

We also need to contemplate the question of organising in a space that is run by a corporate logic and promotes new forms. There have been many new laws with regards to these new spaces, and there needs to be a discussion in activist spaces on the impact they will have regarding freedoms.”

Space, online