Is the new cyber-crime bill akin to banning the internet in Pakistan?
Pakistan has had a long history of curbing internet freedom. Access to YouTube has been blocked since 2012, after violent protests broke out in the country in response to a video uploaded on the site which was deemed to be blasphemous. Despite widespread debate on the issue and fervent calls to restore access, the status quo remains firmly in place.
It is also alleged that sophisticated software is used to spy on citizens, with newspapers reporting that surveillance program FinFisher has been acquired and used by someone in Pakistan since 2011.
Now, a new debate is gathering steam on a set of laws, titled the “Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015”. The bill aims to fix a legal loophole in Pakistan’s constitution, where currently there is no legislation pertaining to cyber-crime. The last efforts to tackle this problem were made in 2007, when, for a period of two years, President Pervez Musharraf signed into law the “Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance”. This ordinance was not renewed.
Civil society activists and advocacy groups in Pakistan have taken to the internet and social media to voice their concerns over the proposed new cyber-crime bill. They maintain that the language used in the draft bill can be misused and exploited, giving the government unprecedented power to regulate the internet, curb civil liberties, and block content at will. They demand that there be an open public debate on these laws before they are passed, and all stakeholders be taken into confidence for their inputs.
Spearheading the efforts is non-profit advocacy group Bolo Bhi, who have released a comprehensive document highlighting their concerns with the existing text. Bolo Bhi representative, Farieha Aziz, says that the very public nature of these laws necessitates widespread debate before a consensus can be reached.
“In its current format, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) will have carte blanche to block websites without coherent reasons,” she says.
“We believe that this seriously impinges individual freedom and privacy.”
A law is necessary, but it needs to be fair.
Another association heavily involved in efforts to bring awareness of the proposed set of laws is the Pakistan Software Houses Association (PASHA). PASHA board member Afaque Ahmed tells Tech in Asia that it was actually their organisation who originally stepped in to fix this legal loophole back in 2012.
“Given the sensitivity and technical nature of the issue, PASHA offered to assist in the drafting of a new ordinance to tackle cyber-crime,” he says.
“We got all government and civilian stakeholders on board, including ministries, intelligence agencies, and legal experts, and after a painstaking process spread over 36 months, a comprehensive document was negotiated.”
However, the last meeting of this working group where the draft was finalised took place over six-months ago. Since then, Ahmed says, all stakeholders who originally approved the document have been kept in the dark, despite repeated enquiries. They were only alerted recently by a “highly-placed source” that their draft document was being significantly altered, with new provisions and clauses that Ahmed describes as “draconian”.
The major point of contention for PASHA and Bolo Bhi relates specifically to Section 31 of the proposed bill. They state that this section gives government agencies sweeping powers to block access to content on the ground that it is “necessary to the security of Pakistan” and uses vague terminology which can be twisted to abuse the law for their own benefit. Examples of this terminology are provisions in the bill that allow prosecution of individuals if “they attempt to create panic, fear or insecurity” for “pursuit of wrongful gain”, or acts that are “likely to cause damage and harm”.
PASHA president, Jehan Ara, agrees that it is essential for a cyber-crime law to be drafted and approved, but maintains that it should be carefully worded to protect the cumulated interests of the state, citizens, and businesses.
“The government is making a mistake by not taking stakeholders on board,” she adds.
For its part, the government maintains that a special review committee of the government, consisting of technical and legal experts, as well as members of parliament, was tasked with analysing the original draft document. The committee then recommended that some changes be made to it to accurately reflect Pakistan’s growing security threats and bring it in line with a wider effort to combat terrorism and prosecute suspects. The bill also has yet to be presented to parliament for final approval, with the government remaining tight-lipped over when it plans to do so.
If passed in its current format, the vague and misleading terminology in the bill is ripe for exploitation and misuse. The carte blanche powers afforded to authorities is also cause for grave concern as it is likely that the trends of internet censorship and blocking of access will continue. The government owes the citizens of this country a platform where they can voice their concerns pertaining to the bill and it is only just that concerns/issues be addressed appropriately. Everyone wants to see a law that tackles electronic crime to be implemented, but not at the cost of individual liberty.
To access the detailed analysis and review of the draft bill done by Bolo Bhi, click here.
The original version of this post first appeared here.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.