Cybercrime Bill: vague and dangerous

The writer works for the Punjab Information Technology Board. He is a graduate of the University of Warwick, UK

The writer works for the Punjab Information Technology Board. He is a graduate of the University of Warwick, UK

Currently, Pakistan has no law to comprehensively deal with cybercrimes. The Cybercrime Bill 2015, tabled by the Minister of State for IT aims at regulating the online conduct of individuals/organisation.

The Bill passed by the Senate now awaits final approval by the National Assembly before the president enacts it into law. Electronic forgery and fraud, cyber terrorism (cyber attack on critical infrastructure), use of viruses, identity theft and so on, are established by the legislation as crimes. A special court would be set up for hearing the cases falling under the act. The Bill has been criticised by the IT industry and civil society for curbing human rights and giving enormous powers to law enforcement agencies. It is said to be a muddle of punishments and vaguely-defined crimes, intended to leash the power of social media, given its increasingly transformational role in shaping public opinion and holding rulers accountable.

The beauty of any law prescribing a punishment lies in its clarity and precise definition of the crime so as to minimise subjective and malicious interpretation. Unlike historians who take pride in spinning varying, even opposing narratives around the same historical events, lawmakers are ideally expected to frame laws that converge divergent interpretations and kill ambiguity by bringing clarity to the definitions of crime. This is not the case with some of the clauses in the Offences and Punishments section of the Bill. A piqued state can summon this Bill to unleash hell for dissenters.

The law dealing with criminal access to “critical infrastructure” information conveniently leaves “critical infrastructure” undefined. As per the UN definition, the term includes power generation and transmission, air and maritime transport, banking services, water and food supply, and public health infrastructure. The UN also urges every state to define its own infrastructure. The Pakistani law proposes a fine of up to Rs50 million or 14 years of imprisonment for threatening the security of the as yet undefined ‘infrastructure’. The notion of ‘national security’ is no different, equally obscure and abused by both civilian and military governments to muzzle freedom of speech and opinion. Similarly, the clause regarding violation of the dignity of a natural person can be easily stretched to target political opponents. The law rightly bars superimposing the face of a natural person on sexually explicit images but then stretches to also rope in those who distort the natural face. Caricaturists and Photoshop users seem to be at risk now.

Spamming, spoofing and identity crimes have also been addressed in the Bill and made punishable with fines and prison terms. The issue of spamming, however, is a little more complicated. Facebook and Google routinely track the activities of their users to gauge their preferences and then allow third parties to target these users with specific but unsolicited online ads. Telecom companies in Pakistan have the habit of allowing marketers illegal access to the cell numbers of their subscribers. As a consequence, people get bombarded with uninvited ads marketing all sorts of products and services. Spamming, therefore, needs to be defined clearly and dealt with accordingly. Admirably, child porn has been made punishable by a fine of up to Rs0.5 million or a seven-year imprisonment.

Critics fear that online criticism of the judiciary, armed forces and foreign policy may invite the state’s wrath and the invocation of the Cybercrime Bill. Social media is continuously evolving and warrants an equally dynamic set of carefully framed laws. Regulation and not strangulation should be the spirit and laws must not stifle free opinion, debate and access to information. Broad definitions of what is deemed punishable gives authorities too much power to prosecute and censor. The Bill mirrors a lack of understanding of the social ramifications of ambiguous definitions that easily lend themselves to manipulation. It may increase the risk of Pakistan going down the Erdogan way — brutally purging the media of dissent as he is doing in the aftermath of the failed coup. His crackdown is polarising Turkish society and reversing the gains of democracy, which allowed Erdogan to come to power in the first place. Pakistan has made significant strides towards democracy, spurred on and helped by an independent media. The credit for breaking the two-party stranglehold over politics, emergence of the PTI, middle class political activism, politicisation of women and increased pressure on rulers to perform can be to a fair extent laid at the door of a media given leeway to run its course. A state seen to be strangling free opinion leaves bad cues for the citizens to emulate, encouraging tyranny in their private lives. The damage is long-term and generational.

Original news :