The past few months have been a struggle for those fighting for digital rights in Pakistan. While they are a small minority in the grand pool of activists in the country, they have had their hands full with the new proposed cybercrime bill (#PECB15) determinedly being pushed forward by the concerned officials.
Currently, the bill has been passed by the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT and seems to be moving swiftly along. A little background might help to understand why the bill is being pushed forward so quickly, and why this proposed bill should be important to us as citizens.
In December 2014, a not-for-profit digital advocacy group I work for, Bolo Bhi, filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court to challenge the legality of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW).
Bolo Bhi had found, after filing in the Right to Information requests, that the IMCEW had no legal standing and yet, were passing directives to block content online, even if they were not of a blasphemous or pornographic nature.
The IMCEW was disbanded in March, after it became obvious that the courts were convinced that the body was unconstitutional. However, as expected, our Prime Minister stated that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) would now have the authority to manage content online, without paying any attention to the lack of transparency and accountability in the current process.
The PTA was created by act of Parliament, which means the powers vested in the PTA are to be granted through law, not by a statement made by the prime minister.
And that is all the more reason why it is so critical to know what this new proposed law holds for us.
The addition of Section 31 of the Proposed Cybercrime Bill gives PTA:
“Power to issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system…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, commission of or incitement to an offence.”
This has created an excessively broad scope to justify blocking material online.
For example, criticism of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the United States of America, could fall under “friendly relations with foreign states”. Thus any newspaper, online media, or material on social media in regards to such criticism can and most likely will be blocked. There will be no need for a direct order from the Supreme Court, or an evaluation of the material, it will just disappear off the Internet.
We have already seen that happen with the disappearance of Fahd Hussain's column on the UAE minister's statement; we may have power to dispute such blocking today, but if this bill is passed, there will be very little we would be able to do.
I could come up myriad examples of what all can be blocked/banned by twisting around the aforementioned "justifications”; but we are all already well aware of the blocks and bans Pakistan is known to impose under the garb of “national security” or “terrorism”.
To take away our right to fight the constitutionality of the banning and blocking of websites, the government wants to pass the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015. This will allow the PTA to block anything, on ANY information system (which could possibly include your phones, your televisions, even your Xbox and PlayStation, because they have the ability to connect to the Internet), and there will be very little you can do about it.
But besides taking away our ability to challenge, this bill has found its way to infringe upon our freedom of expression and opinions.
Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution says:
“Freedom of speech, etc – Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law 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, 1 [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”
It would be good to mention here that the website of a well-known Human Rights Group, Article19.org, is blocked on a certain ISP here in Pakistan, ironically. When asked about it, they said: “The PTA directed them to do so”. This was on April 15, 2015, even before the bill had been passed.
How does a website on the freedom of speech upset the “glory of Islam” or “security, integrity or defence” or effect Pakistan negatively in any way? It doesn’t; it just irks the government, that's all.
This proposed bill will do just the same; it will suppress our ability to express our opinion, to write freely, to create memes, or cartoons, especially ones that are political in nature or even upload pictures of people without asking their permission.
In fact, you will not even be able to send out a mass text, e-mail or any such thing without explicit consent of the receiver. Just read the most recent draft of the draconian cybercrime bill. In other parts of the world, spamming is dealt with differently, and penalties are only imposed if spamming is done for commercial purposes. Not so here.
In the event that you get charged with a crime under this bill, a warrant will either exist as a formality or not at all. The wordings of the act regarding the warrants is so vague and open-ended, that it seems it was just added to make it sound like defendants were being given the right to due process.
The Law mandates ISPs to retain your data for 90 days, and thus, can be forced to give up your browser history and/or other information that we once believed to be private. In fact, if you’re charged under this law, you may be forced to give investigating officials open access to all your data, online or on your computer/information devices.
In the absence of a Data Protection Law, the introduction of a loosely worded cybercrime law would be devastating for civil liberties and businesses in the country.
These provisions in the proposed bill are an infringement on the right to free speech; the right to expression; the right to free media; the protection from undue searches and seizures; the right to NOT incriminate oneself; and the right to conduct business. From how it looks, even media outlets would be severely persecuted under this law.
The draftspersons of this bill seem to have forgotten that there are some inalienable rights given to a Pakistani citizen and that no law violating them can be passed. The fact that the law has moved forward on the floor of the assembly is incredibly worrying.
It seems as though lawmakers have no clue that this law will be in violation of our constitutional rights. It is important that we as citizens identify and understand the problems with this bill, and not stand by while it is in the process of being enacted.
We need to break the silence.