The Trouble With Pakistan’s Cybercrimes Bills

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The Trouble With Pakistan’s Cybercrimes Bills

Nighat Dad believes that Pakistan is trying to legalize censorship and surveillance in the name of national security.

The Trouble With Pakistan’s Cybercrimes Bills
Credit: Pakistan keyboard concept image via

On March 13, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) to restrain technology-related crimes. The rapid escalation of cybercrimes in Pakistan has inevitably led to the drafting of this legislation. However, the bill has been viewed critically in several quarters. Many digital rights activists believe that it violates fundamental human rights and contains provisions which give massive powers to law enforcement agencies.

The Diplomat’s Umair Jamal recently spoke to Nighat Dad, an expert on digital rights, about the PECB, major loopholes in the bill, and implications if it passes into law in its current form. Dad is a lawyer, digital rights advocate, and also the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a non-profit organization working to raise awareness about online harassment and digital rights in Pakistan.

The Diplomat: Does Pakistan need legal instruments to curb cybercrime?

Nighat Dad: Yes, Pakistan needs effective cybercrime legislation; there is no doubt about it. We have almost 30 million internet users in Pakistan while 70 percent of the population uses mobile phones.

The civil society stakeholders have never spoken against the need for any legislation in this regard. Their concerns have only been that we need a legislation that follows the best standards and practices from around the world.

However, what we don’t need is any legislation which the government deems fit and makes in the name of national security and combating terrorism. Any such legislation would be made to tackle the so-called national security issues in the country. But I don’t think the “national security” argument applies to this legislation.

We understand that the country’s security situation is very complicated. We understand that we are in a difficult situation but it doesn’t mean that the government is justified in making such a draconian law.

This bill has been criticized as “draconian” and “abusive” – can you explain some of the big loopholes which this bill seems to have?

The biggest problem with the bill is that it gives massive powers to authorities without leaving any legal safeguard in place for the accused. Section 34 of the bill says that any unlawful content will be blocked. The title of this provision is very problematic, as who will define what is lawful or unlawful? Then there are provisions dealing with the obscene content, immoral content, anything against Pakistan’s ideology and Islam.

These are really vague terms and can be interpreted in any way. Something can be immoral for me and not for you or otherwise. In its present form, the bill is very dangerous. The government can ban anything or arrest anyone by citing these vague terms, which they can define however they like.

Everyone has a different understanding or sense of what is morally or ethically right. Vague terms such as “immoral” and “objectionable” figure frequently in this bill. What do they mean and are they left undefined intentionally?

These terms were left unexplained intentionally because it gives the government more space to act. That’s what they are trying to achieve here.

On the other hand, the state cannot tell its citizens what is moral or objectionable for them; it’s their right. I can only decide what I want to watch on the Internet. The very nature of the Internet is open and it’s up to the people how they want to regulate this space for themselves.

Why do you think the government is in such a hurry to pass this bill?

I don’t think they are in a hurry. They have been working on this bill for a long time. We have resisted this legislation for almost two years. The government has been under pressure to pass this bill from some non-civilian quarters.

Theoretically, the bill is aimed at preventing cyber stalking and harassment and also seeks to punish those involved in these crimes – all of these points seem legitimate. Why has this bill become so controversial?

That’s exactly the problem. That is the nice picture which is being painted by the government to pass this law in its current form. The way provisions in this bill are drafted, I don’t think the priority is to curb cybercrime. The government needs to bring more transparency in this bill.

If the intention is to prevent cybercrime, then the government needs to focus more on education then coercion. The curriculum in Pakistan doesn’t clearly define what digital literacy is, so people do not have much idea how the Internet is structured or should be used. Even if this bill is passed in its current form, it cannot overcome the harassment issue or any other issue overnight.

The key objective should be to raise awareness among people, which unfortunately is missing from the equation.

The bill has to go through the Senate in order to become a law – do opposition parties have the mandate to block this bill?

Off course, they can. Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) has a majority in the Senate and I think they can single-handedly block this bill. We have been doing lobbying sessions with all of the opposition parties. They are well informed now. They need to realize that they can also become the victims of this legislation. This legislation can come back to haunt them. It is draconian on that level.

Let’s assume this bill becomes a law – what are some of the things which a common internet user won’t be able to do?

They won’t be able to do small things such as criticize a public figure or a politician. They won’t be able to start trends on Twitter condemning the government or the security agencies. For instance, if a person is found guilty of harming the prime minister’s reputation, he or she can be jailed for at least three years in prison.

What are some of the steps you have taken to make sure this bill does not become a law?

We have been doing online and offline campaigning to raise this issue. I have been going to different TV shows to talk about the issue. We have pushed other international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to highlight this problem internationally. And we are hopeful that this bill will not pass into law in its current form.