Know your rights: Internet users

Published: September 17, 2014
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Social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook have become a tool to commit gender-based frauds online. PHOTO: REUTERS

Social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook have become a tool to commit gender-based frauds online. PHOTO: REUTERS

KARACHI: 

Pakistan was among the four countries that were reportedly subjected to intelligence surveillance by the United States. At home, security agencies also allegedly breach online privacy of internet users, in addition to hackers illegally accessing personal online information, and women are the most common victims of cyber-crimes.

But, what are your rights concerning online privacy in Pakistan? This week, The Express Tribune, looks at the laws, rules and regulations that protect the rights of internet users.

Global acknowledgement

Online secrecy is a globally acknowledged right of every citizen under Article 12 of the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Constitutional right

All Pakistani citizens have a ‘right to privacy’, guaranteed to them by the Constitution. As the internet has broken global barriers, this right to privacy is no longer confined to your house. It also includes online information such as your search and browsing history as well as your pictures and videos.

Legal offence

Though the Constitution promises security and privacy to internet users, legal experts believe that this provision is useless as there are no specific subordinate and regulatory laws that define online privileges and the punishments for these violations.

There had been one law, called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance 2008, which dealt specifically with such violations. During its validity, it was applicable not only within the country but also outside it.

However, lawmakers failed to make it into a law and the presidential ordinance lapsed after 90 days. Instead, the Parliament passed the Fair Trial Act, 2012 allowing law enforcement agencies to intercept private communications with an aim to track down ‘terrorists.’ Many believe even this law isn’t being followed.

Online privacy and freedom advocates compare it to running an entire world without any rules, regulations or code of ethics. Digital Rights Foundation Director Nighat Dad said that a private company had used spying software FinFisher in Pakistan. Similarly, the US National Security Agency spied on Pakistan Peoples Party’s politicians.

“Are these [Pakistani security] agencies getting any order from court to spy on citizens, as part of the fair trial act that allows a maximum of 60 days, which can later be extended?” she questioned. “Censorship can be circumvented, but freedom cannot.”

Gender crimes

Social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook have become a tool to commit gender-based frauds online. There are instances where miscreants have used personal information or pictures of girls without their consent.

There are some laws that deal with unauthorised online access, illegal data transfer interception, system interference, misuse of devices, online ID theft and electronic fraud.  However, these only protect finances.

Other laws such as The Electronic Transaction (Re-organisation) Act 1996, The Wireless Telegraph Act 1933, The Telegraph Act 1885, Electronic Transaction Ordinance 2002, The Payment Systems and Electronic Fund Transfers Act 2007 also protect internet users to some extent.

To the further benefit of the beneficiaries, the offences under these laws are non-bailable and non-compoundable (not to be compromised), according to Lahore-based law firm Zafar and Associates. “The Pakistan Electronic Crimes Ordinance (PECO) 2008 was the most relevant law and it has lapsed,” said senior lawyer Ilyas Zafar “Government has failed to re-promulgate it or bring in any new law.”

The PECO had given the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) the power to arrest all those violating online privacy of internet users, until it expired in 2009. Ever since, FIA officials are dealing only with cyber-crimes involving monetary frauds, etc. And internet users continue to suffer.

Where to complain?

There is an FIA police station but going to it has seldom helped citizens. The high court is the only place where one can turn to for cybercrimes.

In 2010, the father of a young girl had come up with a request to order FIA authorities to take action against the accused, who had stolen pictures from his daughter’s cell phone. The accused had put the face of the innocent student on nude photos and uploaded them on YouTube.

On court orders, FIA authorities swung into motion by removing the photos from the website and arresting the accused man and prosecuting him.

After a lull of a few years, another case emerged recently, wherein a young girl had accused the family of her fiancé of posting pictures on Facebook to defame her. The FIA were put on notice. In both cases, it was the judges that ordered authorities to act against violators.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2014.

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