ON Dec 5, 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched ‘Digital Pakistan’ with the aim of transforming Pakistan into a digitally enabled, progressive and inclusive society. The initiative was based on Ministry of IT and Telecom’s 2018 ‘Digital Pakistan Policy’ which recognised information technology as “a key lever of economic development” and promised the digitisation not only of key socioeconomic sectors, such as agriculture, health, energy, commerce, and justice but also of the government.
While Digital Pakistan was intended to be a long-term project, a year after its launch there is a little evidence that the government is following a time-bound plan to realise its objectives. Disappointing as this delay may be, it presents a valuable opportunity for exploring its implications for a developing country.
The idea of digitisation in the Pakistani context, conjures the image of smart, predictable and transparent computer programmes replacing dusty, inefficient, and biased human functionaries. While the idea of these programmes deciding matters through their faultless logic, free from human biases, is attractive, it presents certain practical difficulties: it is unlikely that Pakistan’s largely digitally illiterate populace would start interacting successfully with computer programmes overnight; the high cost of computers and lack of broad-based access to internet is likely to magnify the already considerable gap between the privileged and the marginalised, and even if these challenges are somehow overcome, the privacy and security of Pakistanis is likely be severely compromised by the extensive personal data collected by digital platforms.
Amongst these, the giving up of data, or the loss of privacy, is perhaps the most damaging though least understood implication of digitisation. Digital platforms powered by algorithms, obtain a great deal of information from users that engage with them. Even a seemingly harmless click of the ‘like’ button on Facebook, or searching for a product through Google, or downloading a song from Spotify, allows these platforms to collect a wide range of data from users. Although users ‘consent’ to this data collection by pressing the ‘I agree’ button, they do so without fully understanding how and to what end their data may be used. In the Pakistani context, the issue is compounded because users would not only give up data to private platforms but also to the government agencies delivering the digitisation programme in the country.
The threat of digital imperialism remains.
Some people may argue that giving up data is not a problem provided that the user is obtaining a benefit in return, either in the form of government efficiency or a more personally tailored commercial experience. However, scholars focusing on digital sovereignty, suggest that the situation is more complex for developing countries because not being able to research and innovate, they are likely to be almost entirely dependent on their developed counterparts for capital and intellectual resources. This dependence makes developing countries vulnerable to tech companies that are keen to establish their dominance in new territories and are prepared to go to the length of manipulating governments to achieve their aims.
Against this backdrop, an extensively digitalised Pakistan is likely to be a highly digitally colonised country. Given Pakistan’s lack of investment in research and innovation it is likely to be, and to remain, highly if not fully dependent on a handful of Big Tech companies based in a small group of Western countries for critical infrastructure, software, and hardware. As it digitises more and more socioeconomic sectors, the Western technology it utilises for the purpose, is likely to penetrate deeper and deeper into the core activities of the government and thereby is likely to be in a position to collect sensitive data. The access to this data in turn, gives these companies the power not only to influence but also to manipulate the government that has already lost control of its key infrastructure.
This tide of digital imperialism may be stemmed by the enactment of privacy laws that safeguard the personal data of Pakistanis. However, despite the right to privacy being a fundamental right under Article 14 of the Constitution as well as an Islamic right, and despite the government committing to enact such a law in the Digital Policy, Pakistan has yet to legislate in this regard.
Arguably, however, even enacting a law is not enough unless Pakistan also exercises caution in entering into international commitments that would allow digital access to its assets and industries and dilute its ability to enforce rights domestically. However, given Pakistan’s proclivity for bypassing the legislature in lawmaking, for enacting laws recommended by multilateral agencies, and for engaging foreign experts in key positions, this last challenge is likely to be the hardest to overcome.
The writer is a barrister and an academic.
Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2020