Digital democracy

Published June 8, 2015
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

ANOTHER Pakistani woman has done us proud. Nighat Dad, founder of the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation, was recently named by Time magazine as one of its Next Generation Leaders. The acknowledgement comes for Dad’s tireless work protecting women from online sexual harassment, and for Digital Rights Foundation’s role in campaigns against internet censorship, state surveillance, and privacy violations.

The recognition is timely. It comes at a time when civil and digital rights groups and IT trade associations — including Bolo Bhi, Bytes for All, Pakistan for All, Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), ISPAK and others — have launched a successful campaign to review the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015.

The bill, which has been several years in the making, was approved by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology in April, and promptly provoked a firestorm. Digital rights groups strongly critiqued the bill for its draconian clauses and vague terminology which enabled unfettered government censorship of websites and other online material, free speech violations, and unchecked government access to private communications, with few provisions for or transparency.

Digital rights groups did an impressive job of monitoring the bill’s drafts and liaising with international human and digital rights organisations to draw global attention to the flawed legislation. More importantly, they communicated the implications of various clauses in the bill to the wider public — and to parliamentarians, who eventually raised their own objections about the PECB.

Following the outcry, the National Assembly committee decided in late May to defer the passage of the bill and again invited the input of relevant stakeholders.

Nighat Dad’s work shows the state’s topsy-turvy ties with society.

Time’s decision to highlight Dad’s work also feels particularly apropos following revelations last week that the ISI tapped nearly 7,000 phones in May, a slight increase over prior months. The disclosures to the Supreme Court reiterate the need for strong legislative oversight of state surveillance tactics.

More worrying, though, is what the nature of Dad’s work reveals about how topsy-turvy the Pakistani state’s relationship with society is becoming. The cybercrime bill proposed by the state focused on control and censorship, while Dad’s advocacy work centres on digital literacy and empowerment. While the state perceives Pakistan’s online users as threats to the status quo, her work perceives them to be potentially vulnerable in an unregulated cyberspace. While the state wants to stifle, Dad and her wonderful colleagues in the digital rights space want to enable.

It is key to remember that Dad and other digital rights activists have been advocating for the passage of a cybercrime bill and data protection laws. They are seeking to promote the safe and legal use of the internet both by individuals and institutions.

But the state has configured the cybercrime debate purely through the lens of national security, framing digital rights activists and the bulk of internet users — and the plurality of voices and democratic openness that they represent — as a threat. The discourse around PECB indicates that the government has forgotten that its job is to protect the rights of citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. That an empowered citizenry seeking to exercise its democratic rights has been reconfigured as a menace is one of the most damning indictments of Pakistan today.

The irony of the PECB process is that it has not sparked a crackdown on online terrorist activities. While the government drafts bills obsessed with the defence of nation and Islam, extremist groups are freely using the internet and social media to incite hatred and violence, recruit and radicalise fighters, and plan attacks. In other words, those who ope­rate outside the law seem to gain more protection from it than those who seek protection within its remit.

As Pervez Hood­bhoy rightly wrote in this paper last week, the establishment is seeking to appease the mullah at the expense of those who want to uphold the Constitution and hold those accused of violating it — ranging from government officials to proscribed organisations — accountable. This perverse reversal was crystallised in February when a group of civil society activists was arrested in Karachi for protesting against an ASWJ rally, while ASWJ leaders and supporters enjoyed police protection. It is the same reversal that makes Dad and her colleagues’ advocacy for an open internet essential, yet difficult.

The cybercrime bill fiasco has been blamed by some on lack of government capacity and our lawmakers’ poor understanding of how the internet works. Digital rights groups have therefore sought to provide awareness of international best practices regarding internet regulation. But one hopes our parliamentarians do not need to be educated on the basic fact that it is their job to protect, not violate, citizens’ rights.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2015

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