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Pakistan’s Assault on Digital Rights

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The Pulse

Pakistan’s Assault on Digital Rights

Last year’s Cyber Crimes Bill could be used as a tool to silence free speech in the digital space.

Pakistan’s Assault on Digital Rights
Credit: Pixabay

Pakistanis have been draped in a translucent sheet — a strangely fashioned draconian net that the government has quickly sewn together to lay gently over the country’s internet users. It’s possible to see past the new obstruction and quite possibly not even feel its effects right now, but if dissent erupts or distasteful activities ensue, the government can now legally tighten the drawstrings and criminalize citizens for utilizing their rights to freedom of speech.

Last year the government authored a vague and absurdly broad definition for internet crimes. Going far beyond protecting against the commonly imagined scenarios of security breaches and hacking-induced financial meltdowns, they’ve criminalized modest internet speech in the name of national security. This broad definition is now enshrined in law and a satirical meme could cost an unwitting citizen exorbitant fines and a year in prison.

The Digital Commons and the Invisible Shackles

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill-2016, more commonly known as the Cyber Crimes bill, was approved with very little opposition by the Pakistan National Assembly (NA) on August 11 of last year.

Groups like Bolo Bhi and the Digital Rights Foundation have kept a keen eye on Pakistan’s digital space and they’ve tracked the now-law since its conception more than a year ago. Internally, these groups along with IT and legal professionals had been working with the government on earlier versions of the bill. They hoped that their criticisms would be taken into account when drafting the final bill being submitted for a Senate vote. Curiously, but not surprisingly, the final draft presented to Congress didn’t reflect any of the suggested revisions aimed at rolling back the government’s aggressive plans for increased surveillance and censorship capabilities.

The new law boasts rules, regulations, and punishments for offenses including spamming, spoofing, harassment, cyber terrorism, and censorship, as well as guidelines relating to the holding and releasing of data. Many of these concerns are valid. A secure IT infrastructure is crucial for a developing nation seeking foreign investment opportunities. Women should be able to access social media without falling victim to online harassment and blackmail. The most touted rationale by the government — the need to suss out radical terrorist elements and strengthen the National Action Plan — is a legitimate concern. These issues aren’t largely contested; the problem lies in the ill-defined terms and loose language in the law. The punishments are glaringly clear, while the crimes themselves are shrouded in slippery language, left wide open for interpretation and manipulation by the sole power-broker, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).

For example, under the new law, anything that offends “friendly relations among states” or “the glory of Islam” is subject to imprisonment, fine, or both. The latter is a continuous conundrum because it lacks a legal definition in the constitution. “Malicious intent,” “spoofing,” and “unauthorized access” are also hazy terms that are are either weakly defined or not elaborated on at all. These definitive gaps leave internet users vulnerable to unwarranted government targeting and criminalization. The majority of the clauses subscribe a maximum three-year prison sentence that can also include a sizable fine.

Instead of diligently trying to clarify matters of digital security and freedom of expression with coherent and well-defined language, the new law has only immersed itself deeper into a gray area; the same gray area that has been the long established home of the constitution’s Article 19 regarding freedom of speech.

Centralizing Control of the Net

As mentioned, the PTA is the hatchet-wielding government body that has the power to chop away at Pakistanis’ right to expression online. This new authority was spawned in 1996 with directives to reorganize telecommunications systems in Pakistan’s blossoming IT world.

There are three sitting members on the PTA authority, who are chosen by a government-appointed selection committee. They serve four-year terms with the possibility of reappointment if the prime minister approves. The PTA authority and its minions — all ushered into power by government officials — determine everything; what may be offensive in regard to national security, public order, decency, personal dignity, morality, etc.

The authority decides when to remove content and who will be charged, criminalized, and put through the wringer of a judicial system that’s sorely stacked against its citizens. As it stands, the PTA can take unrestrained action without having to prove an individual’s intent of wrongdoing to any court. This burden of proof is shifted onto the accused citizen to fight in the courts to prove their innocence, likely having to invest a substantial amount of time and money on the burdensome costs of judicial machinations.

Due to the hollow language of the law, how inclusive these powers will become is still unknown, but the potential for abuse is enormous. Giving unenumerated powers to a non-independent regulatory body like the PTA, whose members are appointed by the central government, is a democratic misstep, positioned to further chip away at the right to free speech.

Muted Voices of Dissent

Pakistan, like most democratic countries hiding under the veil of altruism, has historically censored and removed content that is deemed controversial or implicates the government in any wrongdoing. Most notably — under direct order from the Supreme Court — YouTube was shut down in September 2012 after protests swept the country concerning an anti-Islam film. In a strange and almost laughable attempt at censorship, the PTA created a list of “undesired words” to rein in all the indecent SMS messages plaguing the people. The highly politicized Balochistan separatist movement is a consistent sore spot for the government, and it’s spurred the PTA to continuously remove  and block many websites for reporting anything on the matter. The International New York Times newspaper was censored by The Express Tribune (which prints the Times in Pakistan) because an article about secular Bangladeshi bloggers was deemed inappropriate. In addition, a cache of sites containing blasphemous content or inappropriate words like “sex” and “porn” are placed on extensive block lists. This is not done meticulously and often medical sites and other non-blasphemous content are subsequently restricted.

Let us not forget the disappearances of courageous dissenters. Salman Haider and a few other outspoken bloggers who were recently abducted have come home, but the total number of missing people climbs into the thousands. Many say that these outspoken critics have fallen victim to the deep state apparatus — the quiet strong arm of the government — that will not stand for the criticism of its constructed ideologies.

Its nonsensical to ask the public to now trust — in the name of national security against radical elements, of course — that the authorities will not abuse the unenumerated powers under the Cyber Crimes law to squash citizens voices as they have in the past.

Public Opposition

In 2001, approximately 1.3 percent of Pakistan’s population was online and as of July 2016, approximately 18 percent of Pakistanis are actively surfing the web daily. Sixty-three percent of Pakistani cellular networks are 3G enabled, and as coverage expands, rural populations will quickly join their urban counterparts online. These are massive leaps in connectivity, but rural user rates and public support for internet freedom still remain starkly lower in comparison to other developing countries.

That said, opposition and advocacy regarding internet and technology laws are largely taken up by younger, tech savvy populations. In Pakistan, approximately 124 million citizens — around 63 percent of the population  — are under the age of 30, generating what’s been called one of the world’s largest “youth bulges.” Then why isn’t there a larger collective opposition toward government control of the internet?

Globally and among developing countries , the majority of internet users are densely clustered in urban areas. As of 2015, only 38.8 percent of Pakistan’s total population lived in urban centers. Compare that to Lebanon, the country with the most public support for internet freedom according to the Pew survey, whose urban population is 87.8 percent. The sprawling rural population of Pakistan is uncharacteristic of most developing countries and this paired with the gap in connectivity for rural populations could help explain the lack of voiced opposition to the new law.

Harassment and blackmail targeted at female internet users is a growing concern and this is often posited as a reason to support the Cyber Crimes law. Nighat Dad of The Digital Rights Foundation and Farieha Aziz from Bolo Bhi, while fighting the Cyber Crimes bill from its conception, have worked diligently to educate women about online privacy and safe internet practices. They support a concerted legislative effort to minimize the online abuse of women in order to increase their accessibility. But they don’t believe that these protections should be included in a sweeping law curtailing basic freedom of expression like the new Cyber Crimes law unabashedly does.

The crux: the law seems to hint that the government has an untethered desire to maintain and legitimize the control of dissenting voices in all public platforms. There’s a sustained craving to implement arbitrary moral policing tactics under the guise of information security, national security, religion, and overall “protection of society.”

The legal repercussions of this new law are apparent and quantifiable. Less obvious is the amount of self-censorship Pakistanis may ultimately employ to avoid the severe penalties under the law. It sends a less-than-subtle signal that citizens should be careful about what they say online. This could result in increased self-censorship, sacrificing the fluid democratic exchange of ideas and critiques for muted online conversations.

The gravity of the new law has been grossly overlooked, as internet freedom and security issues have been in many other parts of the world. The law and its implications failed to make substantial waves in the international news media, but as the first cases trickle in and internet user rates in Pakistan creep upward, it’s possible a broader discussion will eventually unfold.

The government steadfastly maintains that the Cyber Crimes law is necessary to discourage and eliminate radical elements of society. There should be a robust effort to curb radicals, but it should not sacrifice basic freedoms of expression. It should not allow the government to evade the sharp critiques a healthy democracy requires. These laws are not easy to amend and change, but very easy for the government to weaponize against its own citizens. As echoed tirelessly by Farieha Aziz, laws are not created to protect the government from its citizens. The Cyber Crimes law is positioned to do precisely that.

Matthew Marcus is a freelance writer and currently an Urdu language fellow based in Lucknow, UP, India. His writing is primarily focused on basic human rights and issues of freedom of speech and expression in the digital realm.