Suffocating cyberspace

The proposed cybercrime Bill would provide the govt blanket discretion to decide what can & cannot be said on internet

Syed Mohammad Ali April 23, 2015
The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

Pakistan hardly has an impressive record when it comes to universal human rights standards, and the formulation of a contentious Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, which is pending parliamentary approval before it becomes a law, is posing a major assault to freedom of expression within the country.

In its current form, the proposed Bill would provide the ruling government blanket discretion to decide what can and cannot be seen or said on the internet within Pakistan, and prescribes serious penalties for potential transgressors. The draft Bill, in its current form, poses a significant erosion of the rights of the individual, the impacts of which would be felt by not only the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry, but the business and legal community, print and electronic media, academics, students and ordinary citizens who use the internet as well.

Pakistan had been trying for the past year or so to draft a bill against cybercrime. Based on existing British, American and Canadian laws, a comprehensive draft was prepared last year, based on consultations with key stakeholders, to in turn put forth specific clauses to criminalise hacking, identity theft, using sexually explicit images for blackmail, and other widely recognised illegal online actions. However, the Ministry of Information Technology recently adopted the Bill, introducing problematic new clauses.

In its current form, the proposed Bill is a not a good piece of legislation. While it does attempt to address the problem of using the internet to promote terrorism or hate speech, its definition of what constitutes cyber-terrorism is too broad and problematic. Moreover, the Bill aims to unnecessarily regulate internet usage in a manner which would severely constrict freedom of expression. For example, under the current Bill, blogs, cartoons and caricatures deemed unsuitable or offensive will not only be taken down, but their authors can also be prosecuted, and those found guilty could find themselves jailed for up to four years. Similarly, use of Facebook, Twitter or other social networks to disseminate “obscene” or “immoral” content is also disconcerting.

The Pakistani state already exercises sweeping powers to exert control over the internet, but the new Bill further broadens the scope of arbitrary encroachment of private space and justifies the use of punitive measures against freedom of expression. Moreover, the proposed Bill lacks adequate checks and balances on investigation agencies, which could enable unjustified persecution and arbitrary abuse of power.

While the minister of state for information technology and telecommunication claims that adequate safeguards have been put in place to prevent any possible misuse of power, there is not much evidence to this effect within the Bill itself to indicate that it cannot be misused for the purposes of vindictiveness, furthering personal vendettas, or to muzzle legitimate opposition or criticism.

Ignoring vocal criticism of a Citizens’ Joint Action Committee on the proposed Bill, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 is now ready for parliamentary approval. One hopes that sense will prevail and that our legislators will decide not to pass the Bill in its current form. However, the lacklustre participation in the recent parliamentary panel convened to debate the Bill on April 16 is not very encouraging. It would be very unfortunate to see a democratically elected government put in place such a detrimental Bill despite the ongoing attempts to point out its glaring weaknesses.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th,  2015.

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