Amid controversies, political debate and countrywide concerns, the Cybercrime bill has been passed in the National Assembly of Pakistan on Thursday, August 11, 2016. Earlier in the month of July, the Senate had unanimously passed the bill, after 50 amendments. Prevention of Electronic Crime Bills (PCEB) contains some serious punishments for the crimes committed in the cyber space. Some of the prime features of the bill are as follows:
- Any unauthorized person who tries to access important infrastructure system or data will face around three years of imprisonment, along with a fine of 1 million rupees.
- The government will have the access to work with any other government, foreign agency or organization to investigate anything related to an offence or to collect evidence.
- The government has the rights to share any information or evidence with other governments, foreign agencies, organizations or 24×7 networks, if the case requires it to.
- Anyone who tries to access important infrastructure data or system with corrupt intentions will be punished with seven years of imprisonment or a fine of 10 million rupees or both.
- Anyone who glorifies any act, individual or group associated with terrorism, will be punished up to seven years in jail or with a fine of 10 million rupees or both.
- Anyone who produces, makes, generates, adapts, exports, supplies, offers to supply or import a device to be used in an offence, will face up to six months of imprisonment, a fine of 50 thousand rupees or both.
- Anyone who obtains, sells, possesses, transmits or uses the identity of another person without authorization will face up to three years of imprisonment, a fine of 5 million rupees or both.
- If the identity of a person is being used without any authorization, he/she can ask the authorities to secure the information and prevent it from transmitting.
PCEB has been heavily criticized by various political parties, digital media rights organizations and by the general public, due to its vague terminology and because it is prone to misuse and misinterpretation. In the words of Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) MNA, Naveed Qamar,
“The bill will be misused by authorities and government departments.” Emphasizing on the criticism, Nighat Daad, founder and director of Digital Rights Foundation, further explained what is wrong and unjust about the cybercrime bill. According to her, “there is a possibility that the vague and loose language of the bill will be misused by the authorities. The most problematic part of the bill is that it leaves an open ending and the authorized personnel to interpret as per their own understanding.”
The cybercrime bill has been criticized on various grounds. According to the critics, the punishments in the bill are relentless and are not befitting of the crimes. The language and terminologies of the bill are open to interpretation due to their vagueness and thus can be abused by the authorities. The stakeholders’ recommendation were not paid much attention while the bill was being formulated which caused an uproar in the NA as well. The bill curbs the freedom of speech and restricts the access of information for the general public. According to Nighat Daad who spoke to FII, freedom of speech and access to information is both interlinked phenomena. Further explaining the case, she elaborated,
“Suppose a medical student goes online to find study material about breast cancer. If the authorities find the word breast inappropriate, it might be criminalized and he/she wouldn’t be able to access the relevant information required. This is how the freedom to access information will be curbed.”
Furthermore, the opponents of the bill claim that the bill will be misused to target the sources of journalists and whistleblowers. The criterion for surveillance, as imposed by the bill, is open-ended and thus is prone to misinterpretation and misuse. The authorities are given the power to censor content online without an order from the courts. This is alarming and yet again, can suffer from all kinds of misuse. The bill does not speak about the mechanisms of implementation. The critics imply that the bill doesn’t essentially differentiate between a cybercrime – which could be a minor offence – and an act of terrorism on the cyberspace, thus setting stage a lot of confusion.
Commenting on the matter further, Nighat Daad highlighted the effect that this bill will have on women and the marginalized communities. She suggests that one missing discourse of the bill is how it will affect women and other marginalized communities. She implies that all the clauses included in this bill have the same language as the bills and provisions that have been passed in the past, e.g. Sections 18 and 19, 11OW etc. However, those bills and laws were not implemented and thus this one has little chances of getting implemented as well. She believes that, “The authorities are projecting their own agendas to safeguard the rights of prominent figures and institutes by using the name of women and marginalized groups. The authorities and supporters of the bill claim that the bill is solely being passed to ensure that the rights of women and other marginalized communities are being safeguarded and they are not harassed, however, this is completely untrue.” She further stated that though this bill can be used for women protection and has included some clauses related to child pornography – which doesn’t make the bill completely useless – it is dependent on the perception and interpretation of authorities which makes it unreliable.
However, in the first arrest over cybercrime bill, police in KP arrested a man behind harassing girls online. There has been a conflicting opinion regarding the usefulness of the cybercrime bill. Partisans of the bill believe that it is a viable solution to the crimes against women and other marginalized communities. It will prevent the bullying and harassing of women online, as well as transferring any unauthorized data or information. Action will be taken against any entity or person that tries to hack the identity of a woman online or disperse digital information related to her. Anyone who tries to transfer indecent pictures or content related to a woman will be heavily punished. Impersonating someone or sending indecent messages to women are punishable crimes according to the cybercrime bill of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s journalistic community also has some strong reservations against the newly passed cybercrime bill. As Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, editor webdesk of The Nation, describes,
“The cybercrime bill, which will be passed into law as soon as it has the President of Pakistan’s signature, has definitely created a lot of paranoia with regards to what one can and can’t say on the internet, especially social media. This comes at a time when both The Nation’s print and online editions have created a prominent space for alternative viewpoints. Initial interactions with our regular contributors suggest that while everyone is concerned, no one is quite sure how much of an impact the cybercrime laws are actually going to have. Some fear an Orwellian Newspeak, while others believe that the state will only interfere over matters that it is ‘really’ concerned about.”
Khuldune adds, “Are the loosely phrased cybercrime laws designed to give the state clout for clampdown on dissent or deviance where it might want to? Yes, definitely. Does that translate into the state actually exercising that authority as frequently as we might fear? We’ll have to wait and see.
After all print media has been publishing alternative viewpoints as well. And while clauses from the Pakistan Penal Code – the origin of the draconian cybercrime clauses – can be, and have been, triggered to silence some voices, the recent trend has seen the print media – at least the English publications – opening up to a wide array of opinions.”
Cybercrime bill, with all its ambiguities and broadness, is far from being the perfect solution to a grave problem of dealing with crimes on the cyberspace. In a country like Pakistan, where every other law is being misused, giving extraordinary powers to the authorities, who are often not well-trained or equipped to deal with such crimes, would make matters worse.