Pakistani politicians, their advisers and bureaucrats are masters of creating deception. Their propensity to inflict crises and shoot themselves in the foot in self-defence also knows no limits. Their latest feat is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2015.
Let us take a look at Section 31 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill. It says that the government could block access to any website “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality …”
Such critical draft legislation passed through the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication under the chairmanship of Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar, who is not a legal expert with a sharp critical eye for legal lacunas. Committee members did not bother to look into the questionable wording contained in Section 31 and chose to adopt the Bill in its current form with some cosmetic changes. Without providing adequate definitions to phrases such as “friendly relations with foreign states”, “decency or morality”, etc. the Minister of State for Information Technology, Anusha Rahman, defended the draft bill terming it “necessary to prevent unauthorised acts with respect to information systems”. The intention, she argued, was to effectively prevent cybercrime but the proposed bill continues to draw criticism, and rightly so, by human rights groups. They have called it a direct infringement of the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression. Some have even called it a “disaster”, and have asserted that it has apparently been drafted by somebody with inadequate knowledge of the nuances of language and little comprehension of technology.
The draft bill lacks safeguards protecting the right to privacy and freedom of expression, which is a violation of Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights laws. It allows the government unrestricted access to personal data. It can order internet service providers (ISP) to block access to any kind of internet content without any court approval. If enforced, the federal government will be free to share intelligence with international spy agencies, like the American National Security Agency, without the oversight of an independent body.
Much of the criticism, it seems, naively presumes that actions, such as data retention for intelligence or data-sharing with foreign governments are not already taking place. Critics have also drawn on international human rights covenants to criticise the proposed law and have ignored that the US, the UK and most European countries also have questionable homeland security regulations and that they get requisite information either directly or otherwise from countries such as Pakistan. This has been happening since the war on terror started in October 2001. Critics are right to demand that information-sharing with foreign governments and entities should be regulated by specific laws and be subject to independent oversight.
But frankly, will fundamental rights matter if one, two or more states decided to intrude into an individual’s life for a terrorism-related inquiry? Most probably not because of a simple reason: terrorists operating across borders continue to abuse cyberspace and proliferate their toxic ideologies to enlist physical support for their causes. Often confused young people, overwhelmed with identity crisis, fall prey to extremists. The kind of support that the Islamic State is getting from within the Americas, Europe and elsewhere, does demand an aggressive surveillance regime in the interest of the larger community. What we, however, need are clearly defined laws drafted by experts, vetted by the judiciary and backed by parliament that safeguard fundamental rights and protect citizens against extremist ideologies.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2015.
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