THE PTA is at it again: issuing warnings, making threats, blocking apps. This comes soon after the announcement that all VPNs must be registered with the PTA, ostensibly to curb illegal traffic and revenue losses. In light of other policies and regulations announced this year, it paints an alarming picture of Pakistan’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) regulatory landscape.
In Pakistan, digital spaces are a threat that must be controlled and surveilled. While we seem interested in developing the digital economy, our ‘strategic interests’ are repeatedly at odds with such ambitions. This year, we have seen renewed efforts to stifle digital platforms, beginning with the citizen protection (CP) rules against online harm; followed by a draft data protection bill; an over-the-top (OTT) services regulation, which is in the works; action against VPN services; and now a wave of warnings and bans — all representing accelerated efforts towards censorship and control of digital platforms. If successful, 2020 may become known as the year the Pakistani authorities drastically deepened online surveillance and throttled the digital economy.
Pakistan needs a data protection policy, one that is consumer-oriented and designed to protect citizens from misuse of their data, whether by private companies or state entities. The current draft as it stands is flawed. The bill renews efforts towards data localisation, requiring companies to store citizens’ data in data centres within Pakistan’s borders. It also calls for establishing an authority, which the federal government would fund and whose members it would appoint. Contextualising this suggests motives other than a paternalistic desire to protect the citizenry. The CP rules and OTT regulation also call for data localisation — allowing the state unfettered access to Pakistani user data.
These policies also seek to uphold a strict intermediary liability regime, in which authorities can hold digital platforms such as Twitter and YouTube liable for third-party content and can arbitrarily ask them to remove content and hand over user data, thereby increasing the state’s control over online spaces.
In 2020, we have seen renewed efforts to stifle digital spaces.
These policies clearly demonstrate that civil liberties are not a high priority for policymakers. But what are the other consequences of flawed and over-regulation of the ICT sector?
Authorities set up under these frameworks with sweeping powers increase the risk of companies doing businesses in Pakistan, who rightly fear the reputational risk of operating under such potential conditions. When Pakistani authorities demand that these companies arbitrarily remove content or hand over user data, it eviscerates their power to uphold whatever consumer rights they have pledged to protect.
Besides, most multinational ICT companies consider Pakistan a low-tier country. It does not offer the revenue potential of countries such as China and India. As a result, they are unlikely to consider investment in Pakistan worth the additional risks and cost of setting up data centres — the return on investment is just not there. A bulging tech-savvy young population and a top-notch cadre of local developers and tech experts offer some potential for investment. But we still do not match the size and revenue potential of the countries we are modelling our policy approach on.
Finally, each of these policy moves increases uncertainty for local and foreign tech companies. The data protection draft, for example, leaves several critical points for the ‘authority’ to decide at a later stage. How are businesses to plan and make the required infrastructural and operational changes when they do not know what arbitrary stipulations might be announced in the future?
Similarly, the government supposedly ‘suspended’ the CP rules and subsequently initiated a consultation process. However, the cabinet had earlier approved the rules. What does this mean for social media companies who, according to the rules, must register with and establish offices in Pakistan within three months, and set up servers in Pakistan within 12 months of its promulgation?
The government may not be driven by a desire to protect civil liberties. But it does seem to care about the digital economy given the number of policy actors dedicated to the digital space: MoITT, MoST, Digital Pakistan, NITB and provincial IT boards, and Ignite, to name a few public entities with ICT as their mandate.
The attempt to mould digital platforms into surveillance tools will throttle the digital economy and prevent Pakistan from taking advantage of the digital revolution. The ICT industry has found a way to flourish owing to local talent as well as the efforts of civil society and the private sector. The minds behind these new policy frameworks would do well to listen to these stakeholders before proceeding.
The writer is a development and technology policy consultant.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2020