New Year, New Fears: Will 2020 be a better year for Pakistan’s cyberspace?

Photo by Jared Arango on Unsplash

A frenzy of activity on the technological front has marked Pakistan’s entry into the new year.  From laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 finally settling in despite its countless shortcomings, the intention of the Ministry of IT to formulate a data protection policy regardless of the process being extremely slow, and the government’s plans of implementation of new projects like the Digital Pakistan to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and digital literacy in Pakistan.

While the government makes tall claims about the potential transformation of the digital economy of Pakistan, regulatory policies and protections for consumers remain an oft ignored area of debate.  The year 2019 witnessed its fair share of data breaches in Pakistan as much as elsewhere in the world. But while citizens can find legal recourse on data breaches in places where they enjoy legal protections, in Pakistan, the debate on the need for a strong data protection is still simply a debate, leaving citizens without any way of seeking legal resource when their privacy and data is breached.

Related: The Year in Review: Digital Rights in Pakistan

Privacy has a cultural undertone in the subcontinent where people are taught to not expect any in their homes from an early age. Maira, a digital marketer from Karachi, says, “My family thinks that I’m old enough to get married soon, but they still wholeheartedly believe that if I, a grown up independent woman, lock the door of my room, I’m doing something wrong.”

Digital surveillance, monitoring, recording in the absence of consumer’s data protection and privacy laws, also creates an environment where women, bound by cultural ideals of modesty and propriety also make women become increasingly vulnerable to threats occurring from invasions of privacy.

Recently, a hospital in Sheikhupura was found to be recording women during childbirth, and these videos were later used to blackmail them. A cinema in Lahore leaked footage of couples recorded through security cameras that people were unaware of. In another incident, roadside cameras, placed as a part of Safe Cities project were used to record couples in intimate positions and the videos and images were leaked online. Salman Sufi, a public policy expert, lobbied to make transparency mandatory on policy level wherever CCTV cameras are installed. As a result, cinemas in Punjab were directed to indicate the presence of CCTV and security cameras in the premises in every show.

However, a central policy that would allow victims of privacy violations to seek legal support remains missing. In the absence of a protective legal mechanism, citizens are merely left with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). Unfortunately, The Federal Investigations Agency (FIA), the designated authority under PECA, remains ineffective and largely unresponsive. Not only has the agency failed to effectively respond to the majority of cases being filed, but it has also evaded accountability by failing to submit mandatory performance reports on PECA implementation in the parliament. 

With inexistent protective and regulatory mechanisms and ineffective criminal instruments, citizens continue to suffer.

However, one sees hope in some positive judgements by High Courts. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) declared Pakistan Telecommunications Authority’s (PTA) arbitrary decisions to block websites illegal and ordered PTA to formalise the framework being used to determine legality of content. The IHC, in its judgement, highlighted that PTA’s authority to regulate digital content in accordance with PECA is dependent on the formulation of rules under Section 37. While PTA has still not drafted these rules, there is hope that the judgement itself will continue to serve in advocacy to challenge disproportionate censorship in Pakistan.

The decision should also serve as a reminder to the government that the work on increasing access and connectivity would also open up a plethora of challenges for users, unless there is a parallel effort to ensure that users’ rights are well protected by the law and effective channels for redressal of violations of privacy, consumer rights, civil liberties and other digital freedoms exist. The incessant need for amendments to bridge the gaps in PECA, the involvement of civil society in the process of drafting of the Personal Data Protection Bill and subsequent quick passage of the law ensuring absolute protection to the citizens and their digital data, and upholding rights over vested interested need to be acknowledged and adopted as a priority for the government of Pakistan in the new year, 2020.

Hija is the Senior Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She leads digital rights and internet governance advocacy at MMfD. Tweets at @hijakamran

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