The dangers of the Electronic Crimes Act
The alacrity with which parliament seems willing to trample on the fundamental rights of Pakistan’s citizens should be cause for considerable concern. In two moribund years, during which it failed to accomplish a single significant legislative achievement that could legitimately be said to have been in the greater interests of the people, parliament nonetheless found the time and the commitment required to pass the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance and the 21st Amendment, both of which essentially eliminate due process, deepen the draconian nature of extant anti-terror laws, and institutionalize the role of the military in the dispensation of justice. It is in this same ignoble and inglorious tradition that the government is seriously considering passing the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, a proposed law whose content is so reactionary and mindlessly authoritarian that, in a different context, it could have been presented as a parodic example of the imaginings of an irredeemably deranged and autocratic mind.
So what is it that the peerless and visionary minds at the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications have come up with? Should this law come into effect, it will be a criminal offence to post any material online that is critical of the government, politicians, state institutions, and countries that Pakistan is friendly with. Uploading anything that questions the ‘glory of Islam’, or is ‘immoral’ and ‘obscene’ will also be criminalized, with the interpretation of these nebulous phrases being left in the hands of law enforcement officials who will no longer be required to provide any justification for a warrant to search and seize private data. The government will also be able to censor and police the internet to an even greater extent than before, reserving the right to block websites and, indeed, any communications through any electronic device if they happen to contravene the principles laid out in the law. Sending unsolicited email and text messages will also be made a crime, with this particular aspect of the law creating a paradoxical situation in which electronic attempts to solicit permission to communicate with a stranger, in order to avoid falling afoul of the law, will themselves be illegal. It is a quandary that the logicians and moral philosophers of the future will undoubtedly grapple with for generations.
To make matters worse, the entire text of the law is written in language so vague and contorted it raises serious questions about the competence of the individuals charged with drafting the rules under which our lives are governed in the Land of the Pure. The thought that thousands of people could be consigned to lives of misery and despair in jail due to the inability of those in parliament to effectively write down and communicate their ideas (a skill taken for granted by most students in middle school) is a sobering one.
As writers like Evgeny Morozov have been pointing out for some time, the technological utopianism that often leads people to proclaim the revolutionary and democratic potential of the internet often blinds us to the fact that technology is often a double-edged sword, providing governments with ever more complex tools for surveillance and control even as it empowers regular citizens. Over the past decade, the efforts of massive corporations like Facebook, Apple, and Google have transformed notions of privacy, with billions of people around the world willingly, and often uncaringly, allowing their personal information to be mined, packaged, and sold in the service of Big Data. The ubiquity and intrusiveness of the internet giants is matched by the machinations of governments who have seized upon recent technological developments as a means through which to regulate and police their citizens. In China, Russia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, repressive governments have been quite successful in reigning in the emancipatory potential of the internet, restricting access to information while also using it to identify and stifle dissent. The internet has also been crucial to the dissemination of state-produced propaganda, with the voices of activists on Twitter and Facebook increasingly being drowned out by increasingly sophisticated, state-sponsored social media campaigns. To assume that the liberal democracies of the West have not been a part of this process would be mistaken; in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, it would perhaps be correct to argue that the subtlety and scale of the USA’s surveillance of telecommunication networks and technologies far outstrips that of many dictatorships.
The pervasiveness of attempts to control the internet should not be taken as validation for the measures currently under consideration by the government of Pakistan. Instead, they should serve as a timely reminder, and a warning, of how the intensification of state power through information technology represents a clear and present danger to the rights and liberties of the citizens of this country. While defending the government’s desire to prosecute those who publish blogs, opinion pieces, memes, and photos online, the Minister of State for IT and Telecommunications claimed that the legislation would allow for the creation of a localized version of YouTube. The fact that this would be a sanitized, censored version of the site, and the notion that this would run contrary to the point of demands being made for the restoration of that website, is a fact that seems to have escaped the powers-that-be. Based on current evidence, the official approach seems to suggest that offering a neutered version of YouTube as a sop to the public is sufficient justification for virtually eliminating the right to free speech and expression while simultaneously strengthening the state’s ability to disseminate its own ideological agenda.
It is not coincidental that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act is being considered at this point in time; at a juncture in which a state-led narrative about combatting terror has been used to legitimize the expansion of state power and its encroachment on private lives and civil liberties, the government undoubtedly feels it is a propitious moment in which to deepen its capacity to influence and constrain society. As Pakistan’s history has repeatedly shown, laws such as this one have inevitably been used to target those opposed to the regime in power, as well as to further depoliticize the citizenry. Even as young men and women start to be rounded up and incarcerated for the transgressions outlined in the proposed legislation, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that ‘banned’ outfits spreading sectarian hate and bigotry online will be allowed to continue operating unimpeded. As always, despite rhetoric to the contrary, they are never the targets of these measures.
This entire episode is also illustrative of what happens when a technologically illiterate gerontocracy motivated by little more than an unquenchable desire for absolute, unquestioned power is tasked with crafting legislation that will shape the lives of an entire generation of ‘digital natives’ whose relationship with information technology is radically different from that of their forebears. Once passed, laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act can often be incredibly difficult to reverse, not least of all because of the way in which they give birth to an entire bureaucratic apparatus, as well as a broader institutional and societal ethos, that resists attempts to implement reform. Given the threat this law poses to the fundamental rights of Pakistanis, as well as the very real way in which it will stunt the political and social development of the next generation of citizens, it is imperative that this legislation be opposed in the strongest and most unequivocal terms possible.