Pakistan’s online space was once the ‘Wild West’ of the media sphere. True, it had limited reach within the country, but for those who had access, it was the proverbial ‘red pill’ that allowed previously unimagined access to information and freedom of expression.
This was a space that people over 40 simply did not understand and, for the longest time, wilfully chose not to understand; the powers-that-be were the perfect blend of ignorant and inept.
Eventually though, that blip of influence in the late 90s bloomed into a force capable of shaking up those that had ignored it for so long. YouTube was feared (and then shut down). Mobile phones, SIMs, Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber were seen as weapons. Blogs could embarrass those in power. A viral video produced by a hack thousands of miles away could cause death and destruction across the country. By 2013, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s online prowess and influence had political forces truly alarmed. In separate quarters, a new fear emerged regarding extremist outfits’ ability to operate with impunity on social media, with online activity impacting the offline world.
All of the above has been written in past tense because that period is officially over, and the final nail in our cyberspace coffin is the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2015 (PECB).
On the one hand, the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT has been pushing to pass their version of the bill post-haste, while on the other, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of Information Technology (IT), industry stakeholders and digital rights NGOs have been fighting back – mostly unsuccessfully – to prevent this bill from becoming law in its current form.
The National Assembly Standing Committee on IT has been pushing to pass their version of the bill post-haste, while on the other, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of Information Technology (IT), industry stakeholders and digital rights NGOs have been fighting back, mostly unsuccessfully, to prevent this bill from becoming law in its current form.
In the most recent meeting of the Standing Committee on August 13, justifications were provided for problematic sections of the bill, while some criticism was quietly ignored. It appears the PECB will be passed as is.
“We already have enough input from all the stakeholders, we will not consider the criticism of NGOs on the Bill in future,” Subcommittee Chair Major (r) Tahir Iqbal said during the meeting.
So who is fighting the good fight here? Why is the PECB so contentious and what will happen if it is passed without an overhaul?
The good: With the PECB in place, online hate speech and harassment of minors and women should, ‘hypothetically’, be positively impacted. Similarly, the PECB will empower law enforcement agencies such as the cyber crime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency, which have been operating without any real legal grounds to take action. Hacking, fraud and some criminal activity in the online space ‘may’ be addressed better. The activity of extremists, banned outfits and terrorists ‘could’ be monitored, followed by speedy action and prosecution.
The bad: The emphasis on the words ‘hypothetically’ and ‘may’ and ‘could’ in the paragraph above are critical in understanding the larger thought process behind this bill. The sections of the PECB that aim to secure and protect citizens and companies operating online are really an after-thought. This bill is quite obviously aimed at securing and protecting the state, its power and its interests under the guise of national security. This is an open secret.
As cited in an earlier DAWN report, “The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 is a key pillar of the National Action Plan [against terrorism]. A recent implementation report prepared by the interior ministry notes the bill as one of the cornerstones of the government’s plan to fight the spread of terrorists’ and militants’ activity online.”
It is this very aspect that seems to have led to many of the negative aspects of the PECB. How can a piece of legislation be pro-people, and pro-industry when it is written to be an extension of strategic warfare?
Section 4 and 7 of the PECB make whistle blowing a crime. Who does that benefit? What lesson did those who wrote this bill derive from the case of Edward Snowden? That the NSA was wronged?
Another section of the bill potentially criminalises satire, with a punishment of three years in prison. Would culture critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha be chucked in jail for his blog posts?
Thanks to its poor wording, the bill also potentially criminalises the use of Virtual Private Networks, harking back to 2011 when the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ordered ISPs to stop customers from using technology that would allow private, encrypted browsing. While this may help catch the bad guys, it also throws privacy rights out the window, and let’s not forget that big business conducts a large number of transactions using the same technology.
Section 9 of the bill criminalises anyone who “prepares or disseminates” any type of electronic communication with the intent to praise a person simply “accused of a crime”.
Imagine this mind boggling scenario: If I say Aasia Bibi, convicted of blasphemy, is my personal hero would I go to jail? Will I be punished if I ‘glorify’ Musharraf, who is accused of high treason?
Why is defamation covered separately in this bill when we already have defamation laws? Who benefits from ISPs being legally bound to hold all traffic data for one year or longer, and how will this data be used? Section 32 of the bill provides some answers; the PTA and “anyone authorised” have sweeping powers to gain access to data, not only from ISPs but potentially directly from companies. And then we have Section 34 – essentially copy-pasted from the Constitution – of which its first part merits reproduction here.
“34. Power to manage intelligence and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system: 1. The Authority is empowered to manage intelligence and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system. The Authority or any officer authorised by it in this behalf may direct any service provider, to remove any intelligence or block access to such intelligence, if it considers it necessary 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, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.”
If Section 34 stays in the final bill, it will be the all-encompassing death of free speech online. It is the introduction of moral policing using a deeply flawed system that is open to mind-numbing misuse. It’s most immediate impact will be on average citizens and the media, not on terrorists and extremists in our midst.
With a few successful blocks, deletions, fines and possible arrests under its belt, this law will likely be (ab)used by the PTA or ‘any officer authorised’ to take on big business, small business, minorities, civil society, the media, the entertainment industry; really anyone that can be harassed to serve ends ranging from the equivalent of online bhatta to controlling the narrative around any event or issue.
It is not hard to imagine a world where, “pay us, change what you say or your Facebook page and website will be blocked,” becomes the norm. It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that if this bill goes through with Section 34 in place, Mathira, Mehwish Hayat and many others could potentially face serious consequences for their ‘immoral’ videos on DailyMotion, or ‘indecent’ posts on Instagram.
A reminder, these are just a few problematic sections in this unsophisticated, offensive draft so hastily brought forward. A final reminder, because by this point some may have forgotten what a cybercrime bill is actually supposed to do: it is meant to protect citizens, work towards ensuring their rights, and create rules for the online space that act in their benefit. It is not meant to empower the state against citizens, and it should not be a convenient tool for catching and prosecuting terrorists.
Jahanzaib Haque is Editor, dawn.com at the Dawn Media Group.