It is a truth universally acknowledged that a government, in the wake of a national security crisis—or hostage to the perceived threat of one—will pursue and in many cases enact legislation that is claimed to protect its citizens from danger, actual or otherwise. These security laws often include wide-ranging provisions that do anything but protect their citizens' rights or their safety. We have seen this happen time and time again, from the America's PATRIOT Act to Canada's C-51. The latest wave of statements by politicians after the Paris bombing implies we will see more of the same very soon.
Not keen to be left out, Pakistan has now joined the ranks of countries using “cybercrime” and terrorism to rewrite the protections for their nationals' privacy and right to free expression. In January 2015 the Government of Pakistan drafted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB). Ostensibly the PECB was written to address new digital issues, such as cyberstalking, forgery, and online harassment. The reality is the PECB contains such broad legal provisions that that it would criminalize everyday acts of expression while undermining the right to privacy of Pakistani citizens.
PECB was introduced in the same period as the government of Pakistan established its National Action Plan, a comprehensive state-level project to combat terrorism after armed men linked to the Taliba, attacked an Army-run school in the city of Peshawar, killing 145 people, 132 of which were children. The PECB became part of the NAP: a political product intended to make control of political expression an official role of the government.
Much like its international counterparts, the PECB skews in favor of national security—loosely defined—while ignoring civil liberties. Section 34 of the PECB, for example, gives the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) powers to block objectionable content and websites, with very vague, unclear ideas as to what constitutes ‘objectionable'. If the PTA determine that it is “necessary 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,” then the authorities can censor it.
Do you pass messages via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms? Under the PECB, if those messages are “obscene” or “immoral”, you may be committing a criminal offence—again, there is no clear definition of what constitutes either “obscene” or “immoral.” . Even if one does manage to think clean thoughts, sending an email or a message without the recipients permission is a criminal offence, under Section 21. A lack of clearly defined clarifications and explanations gives sweeping power to investigating agencies, with the ability to implicate, fine and imprison anyone for sending a single email without prior consent.
These provisions and others in the drafted bill have led to condemnation from Pakistani rights organizations, international groups including Article 19, Human Rights Watch and Privacy International, and from Pakistan's legal and media communities.
My own organization and many others have been pushing Pakistan's government to retract the drafted PECB, and to include amendments that incorporate civil liberties concerns. The political atmosphere has made them generally reluctant to open up the drafting process to civil society. Organizations, activists and members of Pakistan's nascent tech industry spent most of 2015 calling upon the Pakistan National Assembly's Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication to withdraw the drafted PECB for further study and amendments.
On September 17th, however, the Standing Committee decided to approve the draft and send it on its way to the National Assembly. Actually, to be more precise: copies of the draft were not given by the drafters to other committee members. When they objected, and stressed that the drafted bill could not be approved without review, they were overruled by the committee chair, who said that as he had seen the draft, that would be sufficient to pass it onto the National Assembly.
Anusha Rehman, the Minister of State for IT & Telecommunications, has defended the PECB, asserting that “safeguards have been ensured against any expected misuse.” But as it is currently written, the PECB contains little in the way of safeguards. Suggestions by civil society and lawyers have been consistently ignored.
What Pakistan needs is a a cybercrime bill that progressively and effectively balances security and civil liberties. The current PECB text, badly drafted and politically compromised, is so far away from that goal that it needs a complete overhaul.
Pakistan's lawmakers need to know how broken the PECB is. EFF and Digital Rights Foundation have created a tool that lets you send a message to key Senators and Members of the National Assembly via Twitter. Take action now, and stop the PECB from undermining Pakistan's online future.