Pakistan's data protection, e-safety laws worry tech giants

Federal cabinet approved two new cybersecurity laws on July 27

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A representational image of a person using a laptop. — AFP/File
A representational image of a person using a laptop. — AFP/File

  • Government approved bills on e-safety and data protection in July.
  • "Laws will undermine govt policy on investor confidence," letter says.
  • It adds proposed law will "severely cripple" digital economy's growth.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a global association representing global tech giants, has shared its reservations with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif regarding the recently passed data protection and e-safety bills in Pakistan, along with other similar legislation.

The coalition said it fears Pakistan might become an outlier on the global stage due to these laws after its federal cabinet approved the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 and the E-Safety Bill 2023 on July 27.

However, the bills have received criticism from digital rights activists, civil society members, individuals, and organisations related to business, investment, and technology, both nationally and internationally.

The AIC's letter also highlighted concerns about the proposed changes to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016 (PECA) and the online content-blocking system.

"We want to express our deep concern about the potential tabling of the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB), E-Safety Authority Bill and upcoming amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules (RBUOC)," the letter read.

In its current state, the letter mentioned, Pakistan risks becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses of the growth potential of the internet economy.

The coalition added that the aforementioned laws will undermine the government's policy on investor confidence.

"Amidst the prevailing economic challenges confronting the nation, it is imperative that economic recovery, policy certainty, and predictability be prioritised to foster investor trust and commitment to Pakistan," the letter mentioned.

It added that the AIC members find cause for significant concern in the opaque process through which these laws are set to be passed in Pakistan.

The initial reassurances of extensive and broad-based consultation — particularly from the law and justice minister, information technology and telecommunication minister, the foreign minister and the special assistant to the prime minister — have not materialised, leaving us deeply alarmed, the letter lamented.

"Despite promises of forward-looking governance and a willingness to address stakeholders' concerns, the actual consultation process has proven neither credible nor transparent," it stated.

The coalition members wrote that the consultation process has completely eroded investor trust, as they grapple with significant legislative uncertainty. "Additionally, the speed with which these legislations are being rushed is causing international companies to re-evaluate their willingness to operate in the country."

The members stated that they strongly believe in the potential for multi-stakeholder dialogue to shape policies and legislation to foster innovation and technological advancement.

"However, the proposed legislation will severely cripple the growth of Pakistan's digital economy," they said, adding that while Pakistan's strong potential is recognised, but the sudden announcement on laws belies Islamabad's claims that it is open for business and investment.

"In fact, the legislations and rules as currently written would make it difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses," it mentioned.

In order to fulfil this vision and to ensure that Pakistan becomes a lucrative destination for technology investment and achieves its digital transformation objectives, the letter urged the Pakistani government to collaborate with the industry in establishing practical and transparent regulations that preserve the advantages of the internet while balancing the interest of the country.

"Mr Prime Minister, we know that you share our vision of a dynamic digital economic ecosystem for Pakistan, where platforms such as those of our members continue to drive substantial economic growth," the members wrote in their letter to the premier, calling to foster an environment that encourages innovation, investment, and progress in the digital landscape benefitting all stakeholders.

"We also wish to highlight that the AIC is not against regulation but we believe that the legislation must address crucial issues such as internationally recognised rights to privacy and individual expression," the letter said, addressing PM Shehbaz.

It further said that doing otherwise would derail the efforts that the Pakistani government and the ICT industry have "painstakingly invested in" for many years.