An Open-letter to the Minister IT Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui: Welcome to the Ministry, Sir. Various Challenges Await!

Mr. Khalid Maqbool, Federal Minister for IT and Telecommunications

Dear Minister IT,

Sir, welcome to the Cabinet.

In the 21st century, Information Technology is one of the most essential aspects of human and state development. As we march into the future, you hold in your hands a Ministry whose work would be critical, not just for the IT industry itself, but for social, economic and political development of the country. Given the importance of this portfolio, we wish you the best and hope you will be able to lead with responsibility and ensure progressive, democratic developments that help improve the industry and the sector.

We also hope that as you take charge and go forth, you will be mindful of the impact of your decisions on human and digital rights. The last few years have been extremely concerning for digital rights advocates. We saw the enactment of the controversial Cybercrime law, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. PECA was termed as controversial and regressive by digital rights and human rights advocates and raised concerns globally and at the UN level, but was passed without a number of important critical changes that were required.

We have seen it abused a number of times since; from crackdowns on political workers under different sections of the law to search and seizure of personal data without following the due procedures.

In addition to the legislative challenges, we have also seen the government failing to protect citizen’s digital privacy. There is no legal protection around consumer data. There is no transparency surrounding data sharing with various groups. There is no privacy commission to provide relief to people whose digital privacy rights have been violated.

We have also seen extremely concerning positions being taken by parliamentarians. The recent news about the possible blockage of Twitter in Pakistan is one of the examples. Previously, social media has been presented by some government representatives as anti-state, anti-religion and anti-military, while no heed was paid to the positive and necessary position it serves in today’s knowledge-based economy.

We hope that you will move away from these positions.

We hope that as you take charge, you will revisit the regressive legislation that has been enacted and commit to ensuring the protection of digital rights and especially civil liberties.

As an organization focused on digital and media rights, we request you to:

Revisit the regressive sections in PECA and amend the law to ensure that freedom of expression is not threatened, abuse of power is kept in check and necessary exceptions are built in. We outlined the key concerns about PECA and made specific recommendations for amendments, which you can visit here.

Ensure that content regulation policies for digital content are improved and well defined. Improve with the policies that allow the regulator to make subjective decisions about censorship and ensure that content regulation is based on progressive values, ensuring that political speech and dissenting speech is not blocked simply because it is critical of the government or government institutions.

Create mechanisms to ensure transparency around government decisions to ban, limit and censor digital content. Ensure the issuance of periodic and regular transparency reports detailing and explaining PTA’s decisions around content blocks.

Revisit the policies around Internet shutdowns, in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior and ensure that these disconnections are not continued as the go-to policy during any political or other activities. Ensure that any decisions to shut down the internet/cell phone networks are communicated to the public in advance, along with the reasoning behind these decisions.

Expedite the drafting of Data Protection Law and open the draft for public feedback and consultation before tabling it in the Assembly. Pakistan has already committed to a multi-stakeholder consultation on the law as a part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitments. We are already behind the committed schedule and the delay in enactment of the law means citizens continue to go unprotected and unable to get respite in case of data abuse and privacy violations.

Initiate the discussion between relevant ministries to work on the enactment of an independent and strong Privacy Commission.

We hope that you will consider these recommendations and would be happy to assist and support the Ministry as it moves forward.

With Regards,

Sadaf KhanCo-Founder, Director, Media Matters for Democracy.