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Policing the Net

Michelle Stockman, IslamabadMay 5, 2015

Pakistan's parliament is drafting a cyber crime bill that would give the government new means to pursue electronic offenses. Critics say the legislation opens the door to abuse. Michelle Stockman reports from Islamabad.

A man sits in front of a laptop screen above which a larger screen shows source code
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Headquartered in Islamabad, IT company DPL has a wide roster of international clients including a US automotive online marketing company and the world's largest furniture manufacturer. Syed Ahmad built DPL over the past 10 years from one to 150 employees. All this, he said, despite the plunge in Pakistan's international reputation during the past decade's war on terror.

On the back wall of his office is a quote that might as well be his company's motto: "Why the "*@%#" not?"

But he's worried that a new cyber crime bill could hurt the country's booming IT industry and worsen its already chilly climate of free speech.

"It has nothing to do with security, and nothing to do with terrorism," Ahmad said about the bill. "It's about controlling social media. Social media has scared a lot of strong, influential people in Pakistan."

The sweeping legislation, known as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, touches on a variety of issues including retention and release of data upon state request, spamming, harassment, censorship and cyber terrorism. Most worrying to its IT industry and civil society critics are clauses that could be broadly interpreted by enforcement agencies, leading to abuses of power.

Syed Ahmad
Ahmad worries about the effect the law may have on his businessImage: DW/M. Stockman

Who decides what is vulgar?

Critics object to several sections in a current leaked version of the bill. But their ire is focused mainly on the powers given to government authorities to block and remove access to websites, expanded definitions of service providers, and data retention clauses.

"Cyber stalking clauses contain words such as 'vulgar'? What is vulgar for one may not be for another. Who will decide? The language is too open ended. People will start using such open-ended clauses for score settling," said Farieha Aziz, director of Bolo Bhi (meaning "speak up" in Urdu), a civil society group that advocates for internet freedom in Pakistan and is leading a public campaign against the current draft of the bill.

Convenor of the Internet Service Provider Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) Wahaj us Siraj points to some of the criminal penalties in the bill as severe and problematic. Under a section addressing hate speech, anyone who "glorif[ies] an offense or a person accused or convicted of a crime" can be sentenced to five years in prison.

"Everybody is accused in this country," said Siraj, pointing out that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too was once charged with murder. "So that seems ridiculous."

Nawaz Sharif
Sharif has faced charged tooImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Another critic, President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) Jehan Ara, said foreign companies could object to giving their business to Pakistani companies because of the legislation, hampering one of the country's few growing sectors. Pakistan's IT industry grossed $2.8 billion in 2013, according to P@SHA, and is set to cross the $10 billion mark by 2018.

"Why would any company outside of Pakistan share their data with us if they're not sure it will be protected, or the confidentiality be maintained?"

Pakistan has routinely requested large social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to take down content, "not only on grounds of blasphemy but also 'criticism of the state.'" As stated in a court petition filed by Bolo Bhi challenging the constitutionality of the government and regulator's censoring powers, for the period January to December 2014, Facebook removed 1,827 pieces of content at the request of the Pakistani government.

Since 2006, Pakistan's Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) has removed internet content it deems objectionable. This body, established by an executive order, instructs the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to execute its takedown orders through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), according to a court petition by Bolo Bhi. It was the IMCEW that was responsible for the blocking of YouTube - which has been blocked in Pakistan since 2012 following the posting of an anti-Islamic film, "The Innocence of Muslims," that incited street violence across the country.

After it was found the committee had no legal and constitutional basis in court, IMCEW was disbanded in March 2015 by Prime Minister Nawaz. Instead, he empowered PTA to carry out blocking functions

'Lack of trust'

Critics agree that a cyber crime law is needed to prevent offenses such as online sexual harassment or electronic fraud. But the YouTube ban is an example of the draconian measures that could be taken by any new agency or the PTA if the law is passed.

"The point is not that the law doesn't pass but that it is drafted with input [from IT industry and civil society groups], is effective, yet doesn't subvert due process and trample basic rights," said Aziz. "But if passed in its current form, it will lead to excesses as have been witnessed in the past, when innocent people were charged and jailed."

Awais Leghari, the former federal minister for IT and current member of the standing committee working on the bill, denies that regulatory bodies will have the last word in interpreting the law, stressing that appeals by those accused of breaking the law can be made to the judicial system.

A man looks at a blocked YouTube page on a computer screen
YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for yearsImage: AP

"We need this law in order to have a legal framework to apprehend any criminal activities going on in electronic systems. Pakistan has been lacking this for many years. It is very important to have an environment where we can pursue and apprehend electronic crimes taking place."

He also said that the government plans to hold a public hearing about the bill - its first ever - for IT industry and civil society representatives to weigh in on the legislation before a vote.

Syed Ahmad said he's seen small IT businesses targeted incorrectly by regulatory bodies and, due to Pakistan's slow judicial system, lose profit or go out of business in the process.

"The big issue is the trust in enforcement bodies is not there. That's why the penalties should not be as forceful, because the damage is already done before you get justice. They need to have less teeth. We have to ensure that only the bad guys get caught up, and not the good guys."