THE National Assembly has passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, which means only the president’s signature keeps it from becoming law.

The government’s unwavering commitment to bulldozing the bill through has borne fruit in spite of criticism by human rights activists, journalists, IT experts and digital rights groups.

The deal was, however, really sealed in the Senate in July, where a PPP-led house could have blocked the bill or introduced meaningful amendments. Instead, despite having consulted civil society groups and other stakeholders, it was able to allay only a few concerns, with most of the 50 amendments made being cosmetic in nature.

Perhaps the only amendment providing some consolation was the right to appeal, granted in the much-condemned Section 34, which gives the state sweeping powers to block or remove online content.

In its final form, the bill is both regressive and written not to protect citizens but to empower the state.

Specifically, the PECB can be seen as a tool of war; one of the “cornerstones of the government’s plan to fight the spread of terrorists’ and militants’ activity online”, an earlier interior ministry report stated in connection with the National Action Plan against terrorism.

In this context, MQM MNA Raza Ali Abidi was quite right in his statement in the Assembly yesterday: “The government was under pressure to pass this bill using any force necessary.” While it is an open secret, it is a pity he did not share, for the record, where the pressure came from.

Parliament then has ceded control of the internet in the name of national security. The bill has many grey areas and poorly worded definitions of terms such as “malicious intent” or “dishonest intention”. The harsh punishments listed do not fit with most of the crimes in the bill.

The room for interpretation of several clauses is so vast that a harmless activity could land an individual behind bars with hefty fines. Other areas of concern, such as the draft conflicting with other laws, have been ignored.

The granted room for censorship is likely to have a chilling effect on the one medium where diversity of thought was possible with minimum interference. PPP’s Naveed Qamar summed it up best when he said, “The bill will be misused by authorities and government departments.

None of us will be spared if this law is used in an undemocratic way.” Given Pakistan’s patchy record in governing the internet thus far, there are legitimate fears that the government and security agencies will misuse the ambit of this law to their advantage.

There is no doubt that there is a need for laws to regulate cyber activity in a world where online behaviour is increasingly becoming part of the public domain. But this botched attempt is set to cause more problems than it will solve.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2016

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