SPEAKING at the London School of Economics in November, chairman of the Senate Raza Rabbani said that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was flawed, and conceded that many legislators in Pakistan have serious concerns about the legislation. He implied that the bill would not pass the Senate’s scrutiny in the form in which it existed at the time. The gathering of students, Pakistan watchers, and civil society activists was comforted by his frankness and sagacity.
But discomfort prevails now that the bill — which was passed by the National Assembly last month — is under consideration by the Senate for passage into law. Will Rabbani and the body he chairs hold fast to principles previously expressed and refuse to pass the law?
The bill has been through several iterations, along with a facade of public and expert consultation, which are well documented. The major fallacies of the law have also been repeatedly highlighted: its securitised approach to cyber governance; the disregard for individual privacy and provision of unfettered access to data to the ‘agencies’; the concentration of powers with one authority, the PTA; and the criminalisation of the most basic online activities, ranging from sending emails without the recipient’s permission to sharing photographs and engaging in political criticism or satire.
To be clear, the bill is anathema to freedom of expression and right to privacy. It should also concern cynics who care little for human rights because its clauses are a complete turn-off for foreign businesses that increasingly expect emerging markets to abide by international standards and best practice in relation to data protection and cyber security. If passed into law, the act could stifle Pakistan’s fledgling e-commerce industry which is the future of global markets.
The version of the law currently before the Senate has been tinkered with just enough to try and push it through despite widespread concerns about its draconian clauses. Its review will be a test of our senators’ stamina and commitment to principles enshrined in the Constitution. Lawmakers’ laziness, distraction, and lack of capacity to decipher the technical implications of the act should not leave Pakistan with a terrible law on its books.