THE Pakistan government’s plans to introduce a new cybercrime bill have been percolating for a while, causing much anxiety amongst both the IT and the civil rights communities.
Now, the IT ministry has made draconian amendments to a previously drafted Pakistan Electronic Cybercrime bill that can see internet users imprisoned and fined for using any information system (laptop, computer, smartphone, etc) to share information that the government deems inappropriate, vulgar, or “against the glory of Islam”.
The previous version of the Pakistan Electronic Cybercrimes bill was drafted in 2014 with the help of Barrister Zahid Jamil, who has expertise in drafting cybercrime laws — he has previously done so for the EU and the Commonwealth.
Other stakeholders like the Pakistan Association of Software Houses and the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan were also involved. Digital rights groups like Bytes for All, Bolo Bhi and the Digital Rights Foundation gave valuable input to the draft, while the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime provided technical assistance.
Delicate negotiations between the stakeholders and the IT ministry as well as agencies took place over a long period of time, but finally everyone reached a consensus last year. The result was a strong, well-thought-out and well-researched bill that rightfully protected citizens from the malicious use of the internet, while preserving their freedom of expression with certain limitations necessary for safeguarding national interests.
Previous drafts of the law included clauses that criminalised hacking, identity theft, using sexually explicit images for blackmail, and other recognised actions that take advantage of both the anonymity and technology available through use of the internet and other data systems.
A draconian cybercrime law is on the cards in Pakistan.
This year, the ministry has created a new draft without any further consultation with stakeholders, inserting myriad new clauses that take the original intent of the bill and turn it into something else altogether.
That something is a vague, poorly defined and rather threatening piece of legislation that transforms the Cybercrime Bill into an instrument that can be used to censor, harass, and punish ordinary citizens of Pakistan at the behest of intelligence agencies, political or government functionaries, or anyone with a grudge against an individual or organisation.
It isn’t difficult to understand why this has happened. The powers that be fear the freedom of expression that the internet has given Pakistani citizens over the last 15 years. The internet has democratised information, allowed citizens to mobilise from the safety of their homes and other private spaces, and given them the chance to present their viewpoints on various political and social issues without having to adhere to an official stance.
The government is right to take a stand against websites that try to recruit people to militant causes, or using internet messaging to coordinate terrorist activities, as well as any internet usage that allows theft, sexual harassment, or black hat hacking of computer systems (white hats, on the other hand, hack systems in order to expose their vulnerabilities so that they can be strengthened — and the cybercrime bill doesn’t distinguish between either).
But there are other instances in which websites challenge the writ of the state on political issues — criticising the government, for example, or its policies in places like Balochistan — and the state wanted a powerful way in which to strike back. Fines and jail terms now lie in wait for those who violate the bill, even as the new draft of the bill violates standards set by the Global Convention on Cybercrime, preventing Pakistan from receiving international help or cooperation on issues of cybercrime and terrorism.
If this proposed bill goes through in parliament, not only will the state have the means to silence any opposition, but it will be able to do so using justifications that are flimsy, ever-shifting, and open to the widest interpretations possible. This is illustrated in the paragraph that states the government can: “block access to any website if necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality”.
The Global Conference on Cyberspace, a high-level political conference that addresses issues of cyberspace, cybersecurity, and online safety while maintaining freedom, is taking place this coming week in The Hague. Pakistani digital rights groups as well as representatives of the Pakistan government have been invited, and Shahzad Ahmad, country director of Bytes for All, is an adviser to the GCCS2015 board. We can only hope that both sides will meet at the conference, and in the presence of international stakeholders, come to an understanding about why the proposed Cybercrime bill of 2015 will hurt Pakistanis much more than it will help.
The writer is the author of A Season For Martyrs.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2015