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Is Pak's cybercrime bill the most dangerous in the world?

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 1 July 2015, 1:38 IST
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Up until March 2015, Indians could be arrested for things as subjective and random as posting 'annoying' content online. Fortunately, that battle seems to have been won for the moment.

But more than a month after the Indian Supreme Court struck down section 66A of the IT Act, the ill-worded cyber law which allowed for this, ironically, things are heating up in Pakistan on the same issue.

Pakistan's government aims to tighten its stranglehold on its citizens with a new bill. At least the ones who use the internet: 30 million of 180 million in this sixth-most populous country of the world.

So far, a standing committee on IT and telecommunication has approved 'The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015' and determined officials are making sure it's moving along swiftly.

If, or rather when, it's passed in parliament, internet users could be imprisoned and fined for sharing any information the government deems 'inappropriate', 'vulgar', or 'against the glory of Islam'.

More so, officials investigating such 'crimes' would be granted 'omnipotence with no checks and balances on their actions'. Worst of all, the authority would have power to criminalise the undefined offence of 'crimes against Pakistan'.

This draft bill violates standards set by the Global Convention on Cybercrime and will prevent Pakistan from receiving any international help on issues of cybercrime and terrorism in the future. But the government seems hell bent on passing it.

This new clampdown isn't exactly new. Pakistan has had a long history of curbing Internet freedom. Access to YouTube has been blocked since 2012, after violent protests broke out in the country in response to a video - The Innocence of Muslims - which was deemed to be blasphemous.

Free speech campaigners in Pakistan have long complained of creeping censorship in the name of protecting religion or preventing obscenity.

In November 2011, the telecommunications authority even tried to ban around 1,700 'obscene' words from text messages, which included innocuous terms such as 'lotion', 'athlete's foot' and 'idiot'.

The push back

Fierce opposition is picking up pace. On one side of the ring is the government, where the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has thrown its full weight behind the bill.

On the other, is a motley crew of advocacy groups such as Bolo Bhi, Bytes for All and Digital Rights Foundation, human rights organisations, legal experts and opposition parties who say the language of the bill will be misused and exploited.

A poster from Bolo Bhi highlights why the bill will be problematic for Pakistani citizens

In a biting analysis of the bill's flaws, Pakistan's Express Tribune argued that it "threatens almost every Internet actor rather than protecting them from cybercrimes".

Isfundiar Kasuri from the Imran Khan Foundation, says, "It is simply the latest attempt of a failing government to control an increasingly restive population in the face of policies that only serve our oligarchs."

In a tweet, Pakistan Awami Tehreek party said: "The Government wants to gag the political opponents by using the controversial bill. #PECB15 @ThePreEminent".

Even Human Rights Watch jumped into the fray and urged Pakistan's parliament to reject the proposed bill. "The bill neither protects the public from legitimate online security concerns nor respects fundamental human rights," said Phelim Kine, its Asia division deputy director.

"In its present form, Pakistan's cybercrime prevention bill will instead institutionalise unacceptable violations of basic rights with a thin veneer of legality."

As its critics fear, the bill will most likely become a government tool to attack any form of political criticism online. But the additional fallout is that even white-hat hackers, hobbyists, or teenagers who, albeit wrongly, deface websites for recreation, could end up getting convicted as cyber terrorists.

Pakistan has tried to ban 1,700 'obscene' words from phone messages. They include 'lotion' and 'idiot'

Farieha Aziz, director of Bolo Bhi, says the recent Indian Supreme Court judgement striking down 66A is 'heartening' and would be a 'great precedent available' if the Pakistani bill comes down to a judicial review.

"Section 34, which pertains to blocking of access and removal of intelligence, is our biggest concern. It gives unfettered powers to the government and regulator," she adds.

Another section of the bill, entitled 'spoofing', criminalises satire with a three-year jail sentence. This could have an adverse affect for underground bands in the country such as Beygairat (dishonorable) Brigade, whose first song Aalu Anday became an instant hit in 2011.

The song took a tongue-in-cheek swipe at contradictions in Pakistani society, religious extremism and militancy. It even made fun of the then powerful army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for extending his role for another three years.

In 2013, they released Dhinak Dhinak - a song that touched on the power of the armed forces - only to have the video banned by ISPs across the country.

Beygairat Brigade's satire comes at a cost and they've received anonymous threat calls in the past. The trio - Saeed, Hamza Malik and Daniyal Malik - say they have a new release lined up and will see how the passage of the new bill would affect them once that's been released online.

For now, the common demand is that there be an open public debate on these laws before they are passed, and that all stakeholders are taken into confidence for their inputs.

But is this path likely?

Terror: a convenient fig-leaf

In the wake of the horrific Peshawar school attack where 132 children lost their lives, the government had come up with a National Action Plan to counter terrorism. This draft bill conveniently fits that plan.

As Anusha Rahman, MoS for Information Technology & Telecom, put it, this bill is a means to "prevent cybercrime, defend national security, and boost and protect information technology, e-commerce, and e-payments systems".


She also defends the over-reaching nature of the bill. "Safeguards have been ensured against any possible misuse," she says. "There is no substance in the criticism on the legislation."

The government's intention couldn't be clearer.

The recent murder of activist Sabeen Mahmud is the latest proof that speaking out can be a life hazard in Pak

A previous version of the bill had been drafted in 2014 with the help of barrister Zahid Jamil, who has expertise in drafting cybercrime laws in different parts of the world.

Bolo Bhi, Bytes for All and the Digital Rights Foundation had reportedly given valuable inputs, as did other stakeholders.

This year, the ministry created a fresh draft without any further consultation. It also inserted new clauses that completely changed the original bill.

The recent murder of prominent civil rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, and the attack on Geo TV's Hamid Mir last year, is the latest proof that speaking out can be a life hazard in Pakistan.

With this cyber security law in the offing, free speech just got as dangerous online as offline for Pakistan's citizens. The reprieves might take a long time coming.

The bill in 6 points
  • It will be a crime to send text messages or photos to anyone's email address or phone without the recipient's consent.
  • The police or Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or any other agency won't need a warrant to search, seize or make arrests.
  • Under sections 17 and 18 of the new bill, political criticism and political expression in the form of analysis, commentary, blogs, cartoons, caricatures and memes has been criminalised. Authorities will decide what is moral and what is immoral.
  • Under section 31, government can block or remove access to any website or online source if it deems it inappropriate, limiting the media's freedom and citizens' right to expression.
  • Under section 26, the definition of ISPs has been expanded to include restaurants, malls, hotels, offices, airports bus stations and anywhere with internet. All of them will be required to hold data records for three months.
  • The bill does not differentiate between white hat (those who hack systems in order to expose vulnerabilities and thus strengthen) and black-hat hackers.

First published: 30 June 2015, 1:49 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.