August 11, 2016 - Comments Off on The PECB Passes. R.I.P. Online Freedom?

The PECB Passes. R.I.P. Online Freedom?

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) has now become a reality. The National Assembly has approved a flawed and highly problematic drafted bill, and making it law.

This incarnation of the PECB had taken onboard a number of amended provisions that took onboard civil society input, but some of the most frightening and draconian provisions have still not been removed.

Digital Rights Foundation's Executive Director, Nighat Dad, said that "The cyber crime bill is a disaster that is being allowed to envelop the country. Our lawmakers have gone ahead with deeply problematic provisions despite being told time and again what the consequences may be."

This is a bill that has been roundly condemned by respected international and Pakistani human rights organisations and rights experts, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. In December 2015, David Kaye wrote that if adopted,

"The Bill would also set penalties that would be disproportionate to the infractions and could serve, in practice, to stifle the right to freedom of expression.”

The law contains provisions that violate freedom of expression, and most people still have no idea as to what the law holds for them, how it will impact their lives. The terms and definitions that populate the bill, such as that for “cyberstalking”, have been defined so loosely, that they can be interpreted extremely broadly, ensnaring anyone. The government and the designers of the bill have not taken steps to make people aware of the bill and its consequences, thereby ensuring that Pakistani citizens are now vulnerable and at risk from a heavily flawed and punitive bill.

The bill has been framed countless times as ostensibly protecting the people of Pakistan from cyberterrorism, hate speech, and other electronic crimes. In reality, however, the manner in which the bill defines each is exasperating in its vagueness, and lack of nuance or understanding of freedom of expression rights of Pakistanis.

One provision, Section 34, gives the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) generous powers to remove or block access to information, as it sees fit,

“if it considers it 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”

The PTA has thus so far not demonstrated that it is capable of making such a decision, one that has serious ramifications for the democratic right to the freedom of expression in Pakistan, in a manner that takes into account what the consequences can and will be. In the past blanket bans that have been instituted under the garb of “morality”’ have ended up creating more problems than fixing them. For instance, doctors lost access to valuable and vital online content that related to anything having to do with the female anatomy.

This legislation has been framed as protecting the people. The reality is that it can be used to heavily censor the internet that Pakistanis are familiar with, to ensure that democratic discourse in Pakistan loses another safe space. The state will not need to step in and intimidate people to refrain from the “wrong sort” of speech online: the draconian penalties described in the bill will do the government’s work. It ensures that what safe spaces the minorities of Pakistan had found online will cease to exist, or come under heavy fire. People that were afraid of taking to the streets would use the internet and social media to make sure that their voices were heard. When this safe space is taken away by a state that purports to be protecting them, where else can they and others go?

There has been a degree of apathy and exhaustion. The belief that the law will not be implemented anyway, so why all the fuss? The fuss is that it retains the very great potential of being abused by many people, given its overly broad language and heavy penalties. It can be used to curb freedom of expression that would call truth to power, rather than help the people as the bill’s supporters claim. It is that potential for encroaching abuse and overreach of powers that Digital Rights Foundation and others have been fighting against.

The Government of Pakistan has said that this legislation is meant to protect Pakistanis. The reality is that it criminalises the fundamental rights that are enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan, taking the nation further down the path to total surveillance, and the lost of freedom.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2016, passed on August 11, 2016.

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Uncategorized

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