Draconian bill

Published December 7, 2015
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

WHEN will Pakistan realise it can’t have it both ways? It can’t be both a democracy and an authoritarian regime. An open economy and a surveillance state. Entrepreneurial yet restrictive; both progressive and regressive.

Our desire to reconcile these contradictions is apparent in the mess that is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, which is due to be passed by the National Assembly, and which has again come into sharp focus following BlackBerry’s decision last week to terminate its Pakistan operations.

BlackBerry wants to wrap up because it refuses to build encryption ‘back doors’ that would allow the state open access to its customers’ encrypted communications, as demanded by the PTA in July. BlackBerry’s forceful defence of its customers’ privacy has led the government to backtrack and negotiations are under way.


The PECB highlights the state’s contradictory nature.


The episode foreshadows the battles ahead as Pakistan aims to woo the business of major IT and telecoms companies that are introducing end-to-end encryption. It also captures the confusion of the Pakistani state, which seeks to be both open for business, and closed to information freedoms.

Much has already been written about how the PECB stifles the potential for e-commerce, online entrepreneurship, and IT innovation. Under the law, basic technology usage (including scanning for a Wi-Fi connection or mass emailing) would be criminalised. The bill’s use of vague language surrounding ‘spoofing’ and cyber-terrorism means that almost any activity on any device could be framed by the state as a cybercrime, thus discouraging code writing and data transmission. And yet our ruling party hands out laptops and travels the world describing Pakistan as a perfect destination for doing business.

This is not the only way in which the PECB highlights the state’s contradictory nature. The goals of the bill are explicitly draconian: unfettered surveillance of the citizenry and complete control over online discourse and activities. The bill’s clauses require internet service providers to provide the government with ‘real-time’ access to subscribers’ data and retain data traffic for a year and provide it to the PTA upon request, no questions asked. More problematically, the nefarious Article 34 empowers the state to remove and block anything on the web — no need for court orders, no explanations; all censorship, all the time.

The government has tried to posit the PECB as the product of a democratic process. It initially consulted with industry associations and asked a National Assembly standing committee to review the bill. The committee in September passed the bill with a majority vote, and it is now with parliament to approve.

This is what a democratic façade (or is it farce?) looks like. Industry stakeholders were consulted, only to have their input modified beyond recognition. The subcommittee that revised the bill was government-led and excluded members from opposition parties. A public hearing on the PECB promised by the standing committee was whittled down to a limited invite meeting — no proper public hearing has been held to date. A directive by the standing committee chairman retired Capt Safdar to the subcommittee revising the bill to meet again with industry associations and digital rights groups was ignored, making this anything but the ‘consultative process’ that the government is now cooing about. Even worse, standing committee members with objections to the bill’s clauses were not allowed to review the version that was passed on to the National Assembly.

It was recently announced that the standing committee had included grey trafficking as an offence in the PECB. Digital rights groups such as the ever vigilant Bolo Bhi were right to question how the IT minister and standing committee chai­r­­man could make further chan­ges to the bill after it was approved in Septe­mber and passed on to parliament.

The committee has over recent months fended off digital rights and industry groups, claiming it can make no further amendments to the bill because it is now the property of parliament. Clearly, this is the case only when it is convenient. But such flouting of parliamentary procedure is inevitable when democratic procedures are used in the service of authoritarian ends.

Barrister Zafarullah Khan, the prime minister’s special assistant on parliamentary affairs, recently crowed that the PECB has been through all the consultations and deliberations required ahead of its passage. He compared the process to the easy, overnight implementation of the kite-flying ban, implying that the government had been through enough hoops to push through the PECB.

But that he should even compare internet freedoms with kite flying suggests the government has no clue about the seriousness of the matter at hand. With the PECB, the National Assembly has Pakistan’s economic and human rights future in its hands. This law cannot be born out of such a confused state of affairs. Send the PECB back to the drafting board.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2015

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