The PML-N led government on Wednesday approved two bills to curb the right of free speech as the federal cabinet gave a nod to the E-Safety Bill 2023 and the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 and also approved the establishment of a commission to enforce the laws.
Although there are regulators like the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the cabinet approved two bills which are “likely to further curtail digital rights of individuals and negatively impact country’s ecommerce and digital economy.”
The E-Safety Bill 2023 reportedly aims to bring digital media platforms, such as web-based channels and online news websites, under strict regulations. The bill also provides for a separate regulatory body to check violations and penalise the “law breakers.”
This bill also authorizes the regulatory body to adjudge news whether it maligns someone’s reputation or not.
The Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 will govern “the collection, processing, use, and disclosure of personal data” and establish and make provisions for “offences relating to violation of the right to data privacy of individuals by collecting, obtaining, or processing of personal data by any means.”
“Personal data” means any information that relates directly or indirectly to a data subject who is identified or identifiable from that information or from that and other information in the possession of a data controller and/or data processor, including any sensitive or critical personal data.
Under the proposed bill, personal data will only be collected, processed and disclosed as necessary and in compliance with the provisions of the approved law.
According to the bill, within six months of the passage of the law, the federal government is to establish a commission, the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP) of Pakistan.
However, the proposed bills have drawn strong reservations from digital rights activists and advocacy think tanks.
Internet advocacy group Bolo Bhi, in a statement, said that "legislation prepared in secrecy and passed in haste disregarding input and clear reservations, serves no protective purpose but reeks of nefarious designs to further curb the rights and liberties of citizens."
It said that both the bills, "if moved in the National Assembly of Pakistan, [should] be deferred to a standing committee for further deliberations, which should be open and transparent."
Meanwhile, PPP's Farhatullah Babar in his tweet also criticised how the digital bills have been approved by the cabinet, writing that it is "wrong for a coalition government to push through far-reaching digital related legislation hurriedly [and] in [an] opaque manner in its last days. Not taking on board even coalition partners let alone all stakeholders [is] deeply disturbing".
Journalist, digital rights, and civic responsibility advocate Farieha Aziz tweeted, "Pakistan's Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 must not be passed in haste or we will end up with another PECA. Industry and rights groups have both expressed reservations. While input was provided to the ministry over the years, substantive issues remain."
The bills will now be moved to the Cabinet Committee for Disposal of Legislative Cases (CCLC) and then tabled in parliament.