Political parties contesting in the upcoming general elections in 2024 have been urged to include issues related to the protection of digital rights.
This has been urged by a digital rights organisation, the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), on Thursday.
Given the impact digital technology has on elections in Pakistan, the rights of citizens in the online space, and their inextricable connection with offline spaces, the DRF has put forward a six-point agenda on digital rights protections that political parties must include in their election manifestos.
DRF believed including these six issues was crucial for ensuring robust democracy and enabling citizens to scrutinise the new government effectively.
The six issues highlighted range from funding Artificial Intelligence (AI) research initiatives and establishing a robust data protection regime, including enacting a Data Protection Law, amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and building the capacity of law enforcement to tackle digital crimes.
Additionally, it involves building parliamentary oversight for the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Cyber Crime Wing, monitoring the actions of the internet regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), conducting human rights impact assessments on tech tools and cyber policies, bridging the digital divide across Pakistan and revising existing technology policies that are detrimental to fundamental rights in a digital age where a large number of people work online and are encouraged to work online.
These six agenda items were:
- Institute Parliamentary Oversight, Impact Assessment and Human Rights Audits
- Ensure Digital Accessibility and Inclusion
- Protect Online Freedoms: Right to Privacy, Assembly and Association & Freedom of Expression
- Ensure Ethical government use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Protect the Rights of Businesses and the IT Industry
- Elevate Digital Literacy and support local Research on Tech and AI
To achieve this, parties were suggested to convene multi-stakeholder committee meetings, which are inclusive of legal experts, human rights advocates, and technology professionals, to amend the problematic and vague sections of PECA.
This committee, DRF suggested, should focus on removing defamation as a criminal offence. At the same time, the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 should be denotified along with other laws which impede freedom of expression or moderation of online content.
The parties were urged to commit to prohibiting and preventing arbitrary internet shutdowns, which prevent the public from accessing the internet, a fundamental right.
In particular, DRF drew attention towards the internet shutdown in some parts of the country, including the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Parties were urged to commit to investing in the expansion of reliable and affordable internet infrastructure, prioritising rural and underserved areas to bridge the digital divide for this demographic and women and girls. Additionally, to collaborate with technology providers to ensure the availability of budget-friendly and user-friendly devices, catering specifically to the needs of women and girls.
Parties were urged to implement safeguards that prevent the misuse of cybercrime laws to curb citizens' freedom of expression, particularly individuals charged by authorities for online content deemed critical of public figures and institutions.
To boost businesses dependent one way or another on information technology and thus contribute positively to Pakistan's economy, parties were urged to implement inclusive policies and strategies which cater to the needs of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the IT sector, such as providing access to finance, mentorship programmes, and regulatory relief. Moreover, a task force should be set up comprising industry experts, businesses, and policymakers to review and update policies that impact the industry regularly.