Though this bill was under discussion for the past two years, in a dramatic move it was quickly passed by Senate’s standing committee on Information Technology, headed by a senator from the Awami National Party, which has always remained against such draconian laws.
Rights groups believe that the bill was passed due to pressure from the security establishment.
The Electronic Crime bill criminalizes activities such as sending text messages without the receiver’s consent, or criticizing government actions on social media with fines and long-term imprisonment.
Industry representatives have argued that the bill would harm business as well.
Online criticism of religion, the country, its courts, and the armed forces are among the subjects that could invoke official intervention under the bill.
The bill has been criticized by digital rights groups as an arbitrary measure by the state to curb free speech over social media, which is the only available platform to vent public anger at state atrocities.
As the electronic and print media, albeit privately owned, are controlled by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the government now wants to extend its tentacles into cyber space with the enactment of the Electronic Crime bill.
Section 34 of the bill empowers the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to monitor the cyber activity of citizens.
Despite apprehension and criticism, the state forcibly pushed the bill through the National Assembly, and on July 26, 2016 the bill was approved by the Senate committee on information technology, clearing the final hurdle.
For nearly a decade now, the PTA has been blocking websites containing pornographic, blasphemous or otherwise questionable material. It blocked YouTube on grounds of blasphemy; the ban on the site was lifted after nearly three years and on the behest of right groups who moved the courts against the ban. During the hearing of the case, the Chairman of the PTA admitted that as PTA does not have the technology to block access to one particular derogatory video, the only way to block access was therefore to block YouTube altogether.
Given the limited expertise of PTA, digital rights group rightly fear that crowd-sourced websites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Daily motion, and other social networking sites are at risk of being blocked completely by PTA for a single transmission, such as any picture, video, or caricature shared by a single user.
Earlier, the PTA was not empowered to be Pakistan’s lone Internet regulating body. The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996, under which the PTA was formed, did not expressly empower the authority to regulate, manage or block Internet content. That used to be the job of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites. The Senate subcommittee did not seem to have any issue with empowering the PTA to censor the web; in fact, it seemed adamant that there is no harm in giving PTA the authority by the Electronic Crime bill.
The bill is replete with loopholes that will allow minor offences, like making or sharing a meme of a political figure, to be punished, while allowing a cyber-thief stealing millions or a hacker wreaking havoc with the system, to go scot free. The unprecedented advancement in technology at breakneck speed will ensure that complex system infrastructure remains fragile and susceptible to attack by hackers vowing cyber warfare on state owned sites.
A mere perusal of the bill reveals that the true intention of the government however, is to curb freedom of expression, rather than reduce and restrain cybercrime.
Not only is the bill arbitrary, it is also severely unjust. The wordings of the law are overly vague; the law will open a flood gate of frivolous litigation on behalf of the state against dissenters, and atrocities to harass them.
The bill is deliberately left ambiguous to provide the government the crutches for censorship and suppression. Several provisions, particularly sections 8, 10, 19 30 and 32, could prove detrimental for freedom of expression.
Under section 8 specifically, the law enforcement agencies have been granted arbitrary powers; if they deem any offence to fall under the ambit of cyber terrorism, they may treat the said offence as cognizable and arrest without court permission or warrant.
Of course, cyber terrorism is not clearly defined, leaving it susceptible to misuse by law enforcement agencies.
It is ironic that Pakistan’s electronic media was given more freedom under the dictatorial regime of President Musharaff, rather than the present civilian government bent on robbing citizens of their rights.
Strangling free speech on the internet may backfire for a nation already sick of being muzzled and oppressed by the state. No state that denies its citizens the right to freedom of expression can last long.