The Cyber Crime Bill Controversy
The controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was passed by the National Assembly and adopted unanimously by the Senate recently. It has been implemented immediately over all Pakistanis living in Pakistan as well as those temporarily living abroad. It has been termed a draconian law by many and it is said to transgress an individual’s human rights. Henceforth, it may not be possible to discuss the government and other state institutions on social media.
On many counts, it carries severe punishment such as imprisonment and heavy fines for offences that are not even clearly outlined. In the past decade, the usage of social media for voicing ones opinions increased remarkably, it had become the norm to pen down literally anything on Facebook, Twitter, etc. The average user will now have to be more proactive and exercise self-censorship, as writing unfavourably against state institutions is now a crime, also including many minor things which come under the vast ambit of the cyber laws. The Pakistani masses are mostly uneducated and most people will remain unaware about the law and become easy prey. The ‘Twitterati’ will not be able to start trends criticizing the government, politicians, public figures or security agencies since ‘defaming’ or harming the Prime Minister’s reputation carries the punishment of three years in prison.
The wide-ranging definition of what is deemed as an offence gives the authorities broad-spectrum powers to prosecute and censor and these ambiguous definitions can be misused and misinterpreted very easily. Our government could cooperate with foreign governments or agencies for further investigation and it could also forward to them any related information. There could be seven years imprisonment and a Rs. 10 million fine for interfering with critical infrastructure information system or data with mal-intentions – the term ‘infrastructure’ here has a wide scope and can cover a lot of unspecified content. Glorifying terrorism and celebrating or praising a terrorist attack also carry the penalty of seven years imprisonment and a fine of Rs.10 million. There is also a clause on hate speech which seems fair enough. The crime of cyber-terrorism is a non-bailable offence and this clause is also essential but the parameters of ‘national security’ are not clearly specified. Moreover, there is six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs.50 thousand for importing, producing or supplying a device used in an offence and three years imprisonment for accessing, transmitting and misusing another person’s identity details without authorization. Spamming and spoofing also need to be defined clearly and adeptly dealt with, since telecom companies often provide cell numbers of their subscribers to companies for advertising. Unauthorized issuance of SIM cards is also mentioned. Blasphemy and pornography have not been covered as offences by the new law, though the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been empowered to remove any material that is against decency and morality. The PTA has been granted absolute implementation powers – it can block and destroy any unlawful content and online material without requiring a court order as stated in Section 34 of the law. The point to ponder over is whether there is someone who can ably define what is lawful and what is not.
These offences are to be tried in a special court set up for this purpose, social freedom and chatter of the general public has been put on a leash. The cyber crime law’s confusing punishments and ill-defined crimes curb human rights and freedom of expression, making it risky to even pick up one’s phone or give any comment. It seems like social media had started to rankle the government as it had been effectively influencing public opinion and those at the helm of things did not want to be held accountable for their actions and wanted to resort to muzzling the fundamental rights of the Pakistani public. There are nearly 30 million internet users in Pakistan and teledensity has increased massively as almost 70 percent of the population has mobile phones, so these laws are going to affect a large chunk of the population. Democracy in Pakistan has now begun to carry the trappings of a dictatorship.
The new law affects Facebook and Twitter users in three major ways:
- They cannot name any individual to convey negative news about them as that would be defamation and misuse of information;
- The picture of an individual cannot be used without prior permission – this part of the Act can easily be manipulated, for instance, in group pictures any one of the persons can raise an objection. The good old days when we posted social pics are gone. The person posting the pic needs to have prior assent of all in it which may not be practically possible.
- The picture of an individual cannot be photoshopped even in a comic way. The part about superimposing with sexually explicit images is fair but the flaw is that this clause can be stretched far enough to cover even a cartoon. No more memes are possible under the new law.
Sending a text message to someone without their consent can also become an offence and comes under cyber-stalking. It is as if the average citizen’s privacy has been completely invaded.
Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution says:
“Freedom of speech – Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, 1 [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”
Article 19 mentions ‘reasonable restrictions imposed by law’ and it surely did not mean fascist restrictions over the right of freedom of speech. The cyber crime law is poorly drafted and its vaguely-worded clauses are open to misinterpretation and misuse in the future. It needs to be tailored according to the sensitivities of modern technical communication. It reflects badly on the powers that be. Their desire to censor and control information will negatively impact society.
The new law can be viewed here: http://www.na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1472635250_246.pdf
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 she might be associated.