Digital surveillance

Published October 16, 2020

THE stage is steadily being set for increased internet surveillance in the country. The government has a clear target for which it is silently laying the groundwork, but the preparations are all taking place without the input of key stakeholders from the tech industry.

A report published in this paper yesterday revealed that this lack of transparency has set off alarm bells for the big technology companies who will be the direct targets of this regulation and surveillance. Represented by the Asia Internet Coalition, major social media platforms including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple have published a letter written to Prime Minister Imran Khan expressing deep concern about the lack of consultation in drafting the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 — a key legal framework that will give the government the power to monitor and restrict digital content as well as punish social media companies that don’t comply with government requests.

The letter goes so far as to say that the companies have lost trust in the “non-transparent and abbreviated” consultation process. While this has been said publicly, in private and on condition of anonymity, top executives at these tech companies are said to have revealed even more startling developments which indicate that there is far more at stake than is made public. One executive said the government wants these companies to shift their user data servers into Pakistani territory, with on-demand access to any and all data.

It was also revealed that the government wants to further restrict and control what is published on social media, with a demand to block and regulate content. The rules, under which these sweeping powers would be legalised, have so far been kept secret, with the coalition even stating that, despite multiple requests, no draft of the revised rules has been shared with industry stakeholders for input or feedback.

That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.

Such a hawkish approach to digital companies makes a mockery of both the prime minister’s dream of a ‘digital Pakistan’ and his claim of “I am democracy”. The dogged tracking of citizens, the eagerness to access their data and the desire to proactively block certain kinds of content reeks of paranoia and is shameful behaviour in a democracy.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2020

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