IT has been done before, and the state seems to be in danger of doing it again: crafting laws that appear to increase citizens’ freedoms and strengthen law and order, but contain mischief-making provisions or caveats that achieve, quite often, the contrary. The new compendium of laws that the government is set to present before the cabinet, which if passed by the parliament would become the Electronic Documents and Prevention of Cybercrimes Act, 2014, must be viewed through this lens.
This legislation consolidates and updates the several different laws that apply at the moment to crimes related to cyber activity and information technology. It also promotes electronic and computerised business through creating space in the system for facilities such as e-signatures, and tailors to current needs legislation such as the Power of Attorney Act, 1881. To be sure, there is a need for this. Internet penetration and technological prowess may be low when the country as a whole is looked at, but usage is growing exponentially amongst those sections of society that have access. Legislation has to keep pace. The draft law contains several provisions that are without doubt required in Pakistan, identifying as cognisable crimes activities from hacking or identity theft to cyber stalking, domain squatting and the transmission of child pornography.
Yet a close reading of the draft reveals portions that are worded such that there is danger of them, if passed into law, being loosely or widely applied, becoming a tool for censorship, or being otherwise misused. Consider, for example, cyber attacks that are described as being “against Pakistan’s interests.” That is precisely the sort of mindset that led to a blanket ban on YouTube instead of the targeted removal of some objectionable content available on the site. Similarly, the draft contains references to “crimes against the state committed with the aid and help of modern technology” and the use of electronic devices to “attack national infrastructure” and otherwise cause “significant problems to the interests of the state.” As Pakistanis already know all too well, when used in legislation such turns of phrase can become means of muzzling critical or dissenting views, and of removing from the citizenry’s ambit material or ideas without justification other than the much-misused ‘national interest’. The draft will be reviewed by parliament when it is presented and legislators must scan it thoroughly for areas of difficulty such as the ones pointed out here. Further, however, given the manner in which such a law will impact citizens’ technological freedoms, open debate on it needs to be initiated. The draft should be made public, and citizens as well as civil society organisations should be provided the opportunity to express reservations, if any. Once in place, laws are difficult to amend. In this instance, sections likely to become problematic can be revised in time.