April 17, 2016
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column arguing that the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, with all of its obvious flaws, was indicative of what happens when, ‘a technologically illiterate gerontocracy motivated by little more than an unquenchable desire for absolute, unquestioned power is tasked with crafting legislation that will shape the lives of an entire generation of ‘digital natives’ whose relationship with information technology is radically different from that of their forebears.’ (‘The Dangers of the Electronic Crimes Act’, The Nation, 19 April 2015). Earlier this week, the National Assembly finally passed the law after the Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications allegedly revised it based on input solicited from the Opposition parties and civil society. While there is some agreement that the current version of the law represents an improvement over what was suggested last year, critics within parliament and activists who have been working on this issue are correct to emphasise how this piece of legislation is still fundamentally draconian, poorly phrased, and ripe for misuse and abuse should it be cleared by the Senate.Essentially, there are three broad areas of concern with regards to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Firstly, it could be argued that the punitive aspect of the law – involving the imposition of fines and harsh prison sentences – is utterly disproportionate to the nature and gravity of some of the crimes outlined in the law. While few would, in the Pakistani context, dispute the need to levy strict penalties on those engaged in propagating hate speech and violent extremism, imprisoning people (including children above the age of 14) for sending unsolicited text messages or creating ‘a website for negative purposes’ seems unduly harsh.The second major issue with the law, namely the frustratingly vague manner in which offences constituting cyber ‘crimes’ have been delineated, compounds the problem described above. What exactly constitutes creating a website for ‘negative purposes’, for example, is left undefined. Similarly, the law will enable the government to block access to any and all content in the interests of ‘morality’, ‘public order’, ‘the glory of Islam’, ‘the integrity, security, and defence of Pakistan’, and ‘friendly relations with foreign states’. Again, precisely what is meant by these terms is left undeclared, opening up the possibility that opinions and speech that run contrary to officially sanctioned narratives will be relentlessly suppressed. As has been pointed out by numerous commentators writing on this issue, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill would potentially allow websites critical of Saudi Arabia to be blocked (due its being a ‘friendly’ state), block access to content critical of religious legislation or organisations (‘the glory of Islam’), and dampen criticism of military courts (‘defence of Pakistan’). These are just some examples of the possibilities opened up by this law, all of which clearly demonstrate just how much power the government will be able to wield should it choose to police free speech and expression.This brings us to the third major issue with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, which is the way in which it deals with the question of data collected for the purposes of dealing with ‘crimes’ on the Internet. By requiring all service providers – not just ISPs but all establishments providing access to the Internet (including, for example, restaurants, schools, and cafes) – to record and maintain data regarding the activities of their users, and by retaining the right to acquire this information, the government is infringing on the right every citizen has to privacy while simultaneously expanding its capacity for surveillance. This problem assumes a more sinister dimension when considering how, largely due to capacity constraints and poorly formulated regulations, there is little reason to believe that the integrity of all this data will be protected in any meaningful way, or that measures will be put in place to prevent it from falling into unauthorised hands or being used for unauthorised purposes.Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill is unlikely to be used for the purposes it has ostensibly been designed for, namely dealing with actual cybercrime (such as hacking and electronic blackmail) and the use of the Internet and social media to spread sectarian hatred and religious extremism. As has been the case with the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, and other similar laws justified and implemented in the name of fighting terrorism and militancy, it is more than likely that critics and opponents of the government will be targeted under the provisions of the Electronic Crimes Bill. After all, as has been stated in the space on numerous occasions in the past, the alacrity with which the government cracks down on trade unionists and liberal civil society activists, is matched only by the sloth that characterises its targeting of groups that openly preach ideologies that directly contradict the principles of the National Action Plan.The reasons for this are obvious, either due to fear of backlash, or the persistence of woefully misguided notions about the strategic and political value of extremist organisations, the state in Pakistan has consistently demonstrated a reluctance to target the purveyors of everyday hatred and bigotry that roam the streets of this country’s towns and villages. Given that no law operates in a vacuum, it would be reasonable to expect that the same constraints preventing the government from, for example, addressing the creation of local Sharia Courts by the JuD in Lahore, will also impede its ability to use the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill to take such organisations to task.Only 30 out of the 342 legislators in the National Assembly bothered to turn up for the debate on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, and not even all of these MNAs voted in support of the law. If passed by the Senate, this law will increase the ability of the state to police speech and expression on the Internet, deepen its reach into the private lives of Pakistan’s citizens, open people up to prosecution for potentially frivolous reasons grounded in deliberately vague terms, and lead to all of this without necessarily doing much to combat extremism and hate speech in cyberspace. It is obviously necessary to have a framework within which to deal with electronic crime, but it is clear that the measures proposed by the National Assembly are utterly inadequate and, indeed, dangerous.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.