On the surface, all seems well: there is no doubt that laws referring to cybercrime require being formulated. The issue has been with us for several years, the 2007 Pakistan Electronic Crime Ordinance having lapsed in 2009.
Attempts to revive that led to representatives of the IT industry and its activists, such as the Internet Service Providers’ Association and the Pakistan Software Houses Association as well as some NGOs that work in this area, becoming involved in the process of giving shape to the proposed new legislation.
Read: Digital censorship
The draft of the new Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 was sent to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on IT and Telecom earlier this month.
And on Tuesday, speaking to the media at a conference in Islamabad, Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rahman said that the government has finalised the cybercrime bill. She added that this was in line with the implementation of the National Action Plan to counter terrorism, with severe penalties proposed for offenders.
Scratch through this surface of gloss though, and there is much that is controversial.
Critics say that a government-led sub-committee put in time to modify the draft that had originally been chiselled by the IT ministry and industry stakeholders and activists — the latter now holding that they were excluded from the process of finalising the draft.
What now stands to be tabled in the National Assembly, they say, is a loosely worded piece of legal drafting that not just betrays a poor grasp of the technical aspects of digital communications and the internet, but also contains several deeply problematic clauses that are open to misinterpretation and may be used as crutches for censorship and the suppression of views a government finds unpalatable.
Consider, for instance, Section 31, the most jarring of several examples.
Under this section, 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....” Who is to decide what undermines the integrity of Pakistan, or its relations with other states?
Who exactly are the “friendly foreign states”, and where would countries with which Pakistan has fluctuating ties such as the US be placed? Critics also refer to several other technically flawed and vague definitions that pose threats to ordinary citizens.
The bill is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly.
When that happens, it is to be hoped that the lawmakers tune in and examine each and every clause very carefully, with a view to protecting the hard-won freedoms and rights of Pakistani citizens.
The issue is of much greater importance than the government has chosen to project. Pakistan has suffered much because of laws that are open to abuse and misinterpretation. It does not need more such laws.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2015