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With the first day centred around an introduction to basic legal concepts and the ICT law ecosystem, Day 2 of the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop took on more complex issues of meaningful access to the internet and the many facets of privacy.

“Access, telecom policy and network shutdowns” was the first session of the day. It was kicked off by Shyam Ponappa, an expert on broadband and spectrum policy, who made an argument for the right to access by stating that the internet was public property and a common good, and that it should be made available to all with the least possible impediment. And to make this access meaningful, Shyam stressed that it was important that there is both connectivity and broadband, that it was available everywhere, and at reasonable prices.

With this context, the session also covered the legal frameworks that currently exist in South Asia that enable access, the impediments to meaningful access, and what developing economies in the region can do to improve this situation. This included revisiting spectrum regulations and spectrum and network sharing, and advocating for shared network consortium approaches so we can push costs down, as well as revisiting how we approach community networks by adopting best practices from other regions, like the Nordic model.

The flipside of access and a tool increasingly used by governments in South Asia to control dissemination of information over the internet is that of network shutdowns. In the second half of the session, Umer Gilani, an advocate of the High Court of Pakistan, spoke to participants about the regulatory framework that allows governments in Pakistan and other countries in the region to shut down the internet with ease. 

He also shared his own experience of challenging the government of Pakistan in court over its decision to shut down the network in Islamabad for over two million people during a Defence Day parade. While his petition to declare access to data as a fundamental right was successful in the lower courts, the ruling was eventually overturned on grounds of national security. However, Umer still believes that the right balance can be struck between security and the right to access, but that it would require continuous advocacy and enthusiastic litigation.

This was followed post lunch by a session on “Privacy, state surveillance and data protection” which was led by Gautam Bhatia, an advocate at the Supreme Court of India. In this session, Gautam spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of privacy, and on the evolution of privacy from spatial privacy to the individual privacy we recognise today, which was as a result of feminist advocacy.

When speaking about the legal frameworks that exist around privacy in South Asia, Gautam also presented to participants the importance of looking at the nature of the whole context rather than just the explicit text of the law, and situating the right to privacy and limitations to that right within that context. Further, with such a broad range of legislations affecting privacy, including information technology laws, telegraph acts, criminal laws, data protection laws, right to information acts, and national ID systems, it is critical that we ensure that any restrictive measures to privacy are proportionate and that mechanisms are in place to ensure protection of individual privacy outside of these restrictions.

In the second half of this session, Amber Sinha, the executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, spoke more specifically about data protection and the current level of protection offered by legislations in the region. He stressed that data protection was a fundamental right, akin to privacy. However, in our current legal landscape, our data is shared with both the government and third parties without any real or meaningful consent on our part. Corporations can often dictate data protection terms, and expect carte blanche consent from individuals. To fix this, Amber argued that we need to rethink our data protection frameworks and recognise the centrality of decisional autonomy in our discourse around data and privacy.

Both sessions were followed by a vibrant question and answer round, as well as participants sharing their own country contexts on issues of access and privacy.

Click here for more information about the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop.