“Liberty Ain’t No Licence” – Regulating Cyberspace In Pakistan

“Liberty Ain’t No Licence” – Regulating Cyberspace In Pakistan

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2016 provides for much-needed legislation on cyberspace.

Dearest sirs and ma’ams, legislation is never perfect. It is often dicey and at times nothing but jiggery-pokery dressed in high sounding words of reform and promises guaranteeing betterment. Ask any observers and they’ll confide in you that the whole business of lawmaking involves a strange mix of consent, understanding (or pretending to understand) technicalities, and backlash.

Unfortunately, the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2016 has bagged more backlash than it deserved and has caused an uproar since its very inception. The Bill has many detractors, majority of whom hailing from digital rights platforms and human rights groups. It also has its fair share of apologists who consider that the PECB 2016 is a much needed piece of legislation that will act as a deterrent for those involved in abusing cyberspace for ulterior, rotten ends.

Credit goes to the present government for shouldering the responsibility of regulating a hitherto ‘free-for-all’ space where anonymity coupled with ease of access and availability of vulnerable individuals ruined many lives. We all have our fingers crossed as legislators walk the tightrope dividing liberty and lawlessness. It is nothing short of Herculean task as the path to tread ahead is rife with pitfalls and strewn with thorns.

I request the thousands of lads and dames who rage, wage online wars and roam around uncaged in the realm of cyberspace to make a tad bit less haste as the law is far from seeing the light of day. I implore the tweet-happy, opinionated Twitterati folks and unpaid ‘bahadur’ sepoys of Facebook to kindly search on Google how laws are deliberated, debated, drafted, passed and enacted all over the world. Maybe then they’ll know that the dystopia they imagine Pakistan would become after this single piece of legislation, is nothing but a figment of their wild fancy.

When one lives in a country where parliamentary democracy stands for vote banks being called political parties and political parties comprising of a bunch of electables who move hither and thither as and when they please, then these so-called electables, mostly gentlemen from landed gentry and scions of industrial families, decide which party will remain in power and which won’t stand a chance. Our politicos disapprove all that is said and done by their rivals so much so that they want to rip them apart. Ask yourself, are we not acting silly to expect that when it comes to legislation we expect our legislators to match the prowess and sagacity of their western counterparts?

No doubt the PECB 2016 will affect a huge chunk of our populace as approximately 35 million people (around 10 percent of our population) are estimated to have access to the internet. Another way to see this is that one out of every hundred internet users in the world is a Pakistani. We constitute 1 percent of all world internet users.

Most of these people use the internet for businesses, information, entertainment or interaction with friends and family over social media sites, Facebook being the most popular one. Back in 2012, there were around 6 million Pakistanis on Facebook and the the number has now increased four times as it is estimated that presently around 25 million Pakistanis actively use the popular social media platform.

Like every other entity in the world, there is a dark side to cyberspace as well. We regularly hear about incidents involving hate speech, blackmailing, threats, defamation and propaganda being used to bulldoze either the reputation of a person or the sanctity of an institution. Freedom to express oneself comes at a price that very few are willing to pay. That price is thought and consideration. We want liberty, but once we get it, we deem and wield it like a license.

PECB 2016 provides for strict and severe sentences and fines. For instance, up to seven years imprisonment and 10 million rupees for hate speech and inciting disputes on the basis of religion or sectarianism, have been proposed. The uploading and sharing of obscene photos of children is punishable for imprisonment of up to 7 years and a fine for half a million rupees. These two activities, the use of internet to spread sectarian hate and the dissemination of child pornography, are ruthlessly gnawing the soul of our society. The recent scandal in Kasur is still fresh in our minds, where videos of youngsters being physically and sexually abused and videotaped were not only being privately shared but also publicly sold. The establishment of an investigation agency has also been enshrined under section 26 of the Bill. Furthermore, without court orders no investigation is to commence. The amendments made also include provisions that make terror financing and recruitment as punishable crimes.

However, everything about the proposed bill is not hunky-dory. It is the responsibility of the legislators to rid the proposed law of any vagueness and make the provisions clearer. As many critics have pointed out, the Bill must be reviewed to maintain the fragile balance between regulations and freedom to express oneself fairly and freely without unnecessary hindrance.

The most contentious part of the law has turned out to be Section 34 which grants Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the ultimate and supreme power in all cyber matters. Another point being raised by activist groups is the apprehension that there aren’t any sufficient provisions to keep check on the investigation agency and its officers.

Laws, dearest sirs and ma’ams, are made by mortals for mortals and aim at regulating earthly, routine affairs. New realities call for nifty lawmaking. We, the citizenry, must play our role in a productive manner. We must pay the price for liberty we so dearly enjoy, which is none other than eternal vigilance.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Shah Nawaz Mohal

Author: Shah Nawaz Mohal

The writer is a law graduate and currently works as an investigative journalist and columnist at Pakistan Today, Islamabad Bureau.