EARLIER this month, the PTA issued a notice extending the June 30 deadline by another month for businesses and individuals to register virtual private networks. VPNs allow internet users to navigate the web securely and privately, and also access blocked content. They are also used by many businesses as an additional layer of encryption to protect sensitive data. VPN traffic falls under the PTA’s definition of ‘grey traffic’; thus, citing the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations, 2010, it is now seeking to control its usage with the express purpose of stopping “losses to the national exchequer”.
However, digital rights experts argue that, viewed in tandem with other recent moves — such as the revelation in 2019 that Pakistan had acquired a web monitoring system from a controversial tech firm, or the attempt to introduce draconian social media rules earlier this year — the practice of registering VPNs will not only strip them of their purpose but also lead to tighter control and surveillance over Pakistani internet users. The fact that these actions are being undertaken with little transparency and oversight, as well as the broad powers conferred on the regulatory authority under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, means that the likely outcome of such measures will only undermine civil liberties in this country further. The Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to privacy as ‘inviolable’, yet Pakistan’s current internet governance framework is skewed towards sweeping, unconstrained cyber surveillance of any and all citizens. The push for users to declare VPNs forces them into the Catch-22 situation of having to opt in to exercise their right to privacy by first opting out of it by registering their intent to do so. In reality, the need of the hour is a complete reappraisal of Pakistan’s internet governance laws to ensure their compliance with basic human rights. Far from ensuring greater security, surveillance without checks and balances puts everyone in this country, from the powerless to the powerful, at greater risk.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2020