Review cybercrime bill

Review cybercrime bill
The government intends to bring a law to tackle cyber crimes in the ever expanding but largely unregulated universe of the Internet. This exercise started in 2010 under the PPP government and has culminated under the PMLN government in the approval of a bill by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly for passing as law.

No one can argue against the necessity of a robust law against cyber crimes.  Most countries have already woken up to this need and acted accordingly. The Internet is now the preferred vehicle of business and finance globally. It has also become the principle source of knowledge, propaganda, facts and fiction. It invades every aspect of private and public life. It forcefully impacts religious, moral and secular values. Crooks, fraudsters, freaks, terrorists and insurgents all inhabit its nooks and corners, armed with intelligence to penetrate our homes, violate our privacy, rob us and defame us.

The problem arises when laws to prevent cyber crimes are liable to be misused by autocratic, ignorant, over-zealous, self-righteous and/or unaccountable institutions and leaders of the state. In particular, there is serious cause for concern when fundamental rights of liberty and humanity enshrined in the constitution are liable to be trampled upon in blind or excessive haste in implementing the law. The current bill, unfortunately, falls far short of assurances on this count. That is why civil society groups are up in arms against the proposed bill.

For starters, it seems there is no interparty consensus on the bill. Only PMLN members of the standing committee of the National Assembly have signed on the draft bill. Then there is no satisfactory explanation why an earlier draft approved by an interparty coalition plus representatives of civil society in accordance with best global practices was junked at the last minute. Now we have a proposed bill that the government is reluctant to air because it doesn’t want any further discussions and delays.

The cause of concern arises from certain clauses, terms and definitions. For instance, “glorification” (defined as “any form of praise”) of persons who are simply accused of committing a crime no less than convicts is a crime under this law. This stands the legal dictum– innocent until proven guilty – on its head. The sections under spamming, spoofing and cyber stalking need to be tightened by precise definitions and exceptions. In particular, powers and criteria to block websites and content should be carefully articulated so that morons, holy-than-thou officials and dictatorial politicians are restrained from trampling on our fundamental rights of freedom of speech and access to information. Intellectually creative people, especially artists, satirists, designers and illustrators and such like, must not fall by the wayside because of certain provisions of this proposed law. Terms such as “glory of Islam”, “national security”, “integrity of Pakistan”, “ideology of Pakistan” are controversial. Most worrying is a clause that would make it a crime to criticize “friendly countries” – there are no permanent friends and enemies in foreign relations.

The government claims that where there is any doubt about the meaning and scope of terms, definitions and scope of the law, the courts will do what they have always done – recourse to the constitution, case law and precedents. This is all very well. But we know why justice is hard to come by once the authorities have arrested someone and locked him up. Therefore it is better to do one’s homework in the first place and make a good law that is not open to abuse than to push a bill through and let the dice fall where they may.  There are many examples of bad laws that either remain on the books and are the bane of people’s lives or have been successfully challenged in the courts and revised later on.

There are at least 130 million cell phone subscribers and 15 million broadband users in Pakistan. In the next five years, every Pakistani, literate or not, child or adult, male or female, will be using an android device that puts him in touch, via text or images, with every corner of the globe. The speed of the Internet will rise and the costs of using it will fall. It will be as ubiquitous as the very air we breathe. Under the circumstances, how can any government play fast and loose with a law that touches the lives of every Pakistani in so many unconceivable ways? Indeed, instead of crowing about how the government has succeeded in reducing a 44 page draft to 13 pages, efforts should me made to flesh out every provision of the law so that both objectives of combatting cybercrime and protecting, nay enhancing, fundamental rights of freedom of speech and access to information, are met in a consensual way.

The PMLN government should immediately invite concerned representatives of civil society to peruse this draft and make appropriate additions and deletions and clarifications and exceptions. If ever a truly national consensus were needed on any bill, it is now.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.