Recent events in Pakistan have been traumatic to say the least: the kidnapping of Lahori children and the bomb blast in Quetta that wiped out its entire senior lawyer cadre. Living in Pakistan means getting your heart broken again and again. We have accepted this even as we fight against it every day.
But there's another battle that Pakistani civil society lost today: the fight to save Pakistani Internet users from the draconian Pakistan Electronic Cyber-crime Bill. After a year of wrangling over several unsatisfactory drafts, the bill was passed today in Pakistan's National Assembly, after a superhuman effort by digital rights activists, IT experts, and civil society to stop the bill from becoming law. With its passage, Pakistanis have lost most of their digital rights to freedom of expression, being able to criticise the government, and do business with the rest of the world over the Internet.
The government under the leadership of IT Minister Anusha Rehman insists that this bill will protect individuals from harassment and cut down on cyber-crime and terrorism, even though cyberterrorism is not technically the subject of this law.
Underneath these so-called good intentions is the aim to cut down on dissent by penalising bloggers, political opposition, writers and ordinary Internet users for vague crimes like "offending Islam" and "promoting vulgarity." With this bill Pakistan has now joined the ranks of countries like Saudi Arabia and China that censor the Internet in "societal norms, business practices and other areas."
While the law takes some halting steps towards preventing crimes of identity theft, impersonation, and harassment, huge fines and jail time can be given for the most arbitrary of reasons: publishing someone's photograph without their consent, or sending an SMS on their phone without their consent. White hat hacking, whereby hackers test the security of data systems, is also regarded as a crime because no distinction has been made between this and hacking for malicious purposes. Even phone vendors can be found guilty if they sell a smartphone that's then used for committing an offence.
What does it say about our country that we got an anti-cyber-crimes law before we got the anti-honour crimes bill the government promised us two months ago?
The basic tenet of freedom of speech means that you can speak openly (as long as you are not promoting violence) and you will not face the government's censure for it. This law robs every single Pakistani citizen of that right. Even forwarding by email an op-ed published in a newspaper that critiques the government's performance can get anyone fined and jailed. I myself may face criminal charges for even writing this column.
For a year, digital rights defenders like the Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi, as well as civil society experts and stakeholders tried to get the bill amended from its current oppressive form. They were thwarted at every turn. Pakistani PPP senators Sherry Rehman and Aitzaz Ahsan and MNAs like PTI's Dr. Arif Alvi attempted to make important amendments to the bill, adding over fifty amendments, but this still didn't dilute the bill's dangerous powers.
Before the bill was passed into law, Nafisa Shah of the PPP said on Twitter, "I spoke against the draconian cyber crime law today in the NA. Called it government's oppressive instrument of surveillance of youth & civil society." Dr. Arif Alvi of PTI wrote, "PTI will be opposing Cyber Crime Bill – despite our efforts to make it better, we have decided not to accept it in its present form." However, it was too little too late – the political parties failed to make their opposition clear when standing committees in the parliament were discussing the bill earlier this year.
A few weeks ago I gave a lecture social media and journalism at a workshop for working journalists at the Center for Excellence in Journalism at Karachi's prestigious Institute for Business Administration. Sixty percent of the participants had not heard of the PECB. The majority of civil society still has no idea what's being done to them in the name of the PECB. Is this the Pakistan we want to live in – uninformed of their rights and responsibilities as internet citizens, yet held accountable for even the most innocent of actions?
And what does it say about our country that we got an anti-cyber-crimes law before we got the anti-honour crimes bill the government promised us two months ago? Will this country see a plethora of bloggers jailed, political cartoonists fined, ordinary citizens harassed by law enforcement agencies? More importantly, will this law have any effect on terrorism at all? The government has made no adequate case for the law, only used its muscle power and its majority in the National Assembly to push it through by any means necessary.
There is one thing left to opponents of the law, and that is to take the government to court over its passage. No doubt the ruling PML-N will see this as attempts by the opposition to gain political mileage, as they have already dubbed civil society protestors "propagandists" and "agents."
The Minister for IT Anusha Rehman has been quoted as saying, "Criticism regarding the bill is baseless as proposed amendments have been included. Non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives are opposing the bill due to a certain agenda." The minister has never clarified precisely to what agenda she refers, but leaves us all to fill in the blanks, implying that freedom of speech proponents are enemies of the state.
Yet the proponents of the bill will never admit that Pakistanis who are working to oppose this bill and to make it fair and equitable are actually more patriotic than those who support it. Only by criticism and critique can we as a country improve ourselves.
Only by the input of civil society can a government be held accountable and responsible for its performance and transparency. Enacting the Pakistan Electronic Cyber-crimes Bill into law has effectively taken away that power away from the citizens of Pakistan. And the Internet is no longer a safe space for its citizens to express themselves without fear of government censure, but a dark hole into which any of us can fall on the whims of the authorities.