Cyber crimes and the criminals
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, better known as the Cyber Crimes bill, is a naked attempt to muzzle public dissent and insert a government referee into public discourse. It is barefaced in its abhorrent resolve to curate the online space to its own liking, in its contempt for the rights of citizens, in its desire to hear nothing from its populace but a neutered bleating. It is documentable proof that no matter how low our bar for governance is set, our representatives will heroically sink to the challenge and slip under it.
I’d like to applaud the efforts of the politicians, lawyers and human rights activists who fought the bill at every stage and in every way, the review committee members who rejected it outright in 2015, the senators who stood up for their citizens, the journalists who shone a spotlight on the writhing, wretched thing. They are patriots fighting the good fight.
To be clear: cybercrimes are real, and their prevention is a good thing. Fraud, sexual harassment, incitement to violence-these are all crimes that take place in every human commingling, physical or virtual, and the medium through which the crime is committed makes it no less a crime.
But where they could have protected their people, the government chose once again to protect itself.
IT Minister Anusha Rehman championed a despicable and foolish law, and then had the gall to claim that “Non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives are opposing the bill due to a certain agenda.” Well, certainly. The right to free speech and privacy should be on someone’s agenda.
In all likelihood, the government will be unable to enforce the bill. President Zardari forbade anyone from mocking him on pain of imprisonment, and may as well have tried to forbid the tide coming in. It doesn’t matter. The intent is clear and the intent is vile.
Law is built upon objectivity and specificity, and when those pillars are undermined, the Law creaks and shudders and our rights shudder with it.
A few highlights from the bill:
“Up to three year imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs0.5 million for creating a website for negative purposes”
When a person speaks a turn of phrase that is duplicitous, that appears unremarkable but conceals danger just below its crest, they are said to be employing “weasel-words”. Phrases such as “sign this waiver, it’s only a formality” or “oh, you don’t need a receipt”, or “vote for me”.
But phrases like “negative purposes” are not weasel-words, they are the words of a rat that carries in its wretched fur a plague to wipe out cities. It is a term that could be used to prosecute anyone for anything. It is an over-the-broad, sweeping, venomous, oafish scrawl masquerading as a piece of litigation that is outdone only by another clause in the same bill that reads:
“Three years imprisonment and fine of up to Rs1 million for misusing internet”
How is “misuse” defined? How is it measured? Does the definition remain static from government to government? The clause may as well read: “this government reserves the right to censor or arrest its citizens on a whim.”
Another section grants sweeping power to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to remove or block access to information that could affect “friendly relations with foreign states”. I am impressed by the graciousness; it takes a hospitable despot to forbid dissent not only against themselves, but against their friends.
Not only does this bill fundamentally misunderstand the nature of digital information-which, like an electric current, will always find a path-but also misunderstands the nature of the role of the politician.
The bill erodes public accountability, which in turn erodes democracy. And the current, marginal national preference for democracy is all that keeps our leaders in place.
No doubt our politicians would prefer a population that bends to their command and cowers before their decree. But if we wished to be governed by a strong leader with unchecked power, why on Earth would we support democracy?
All over the world, the charm of civilian governments lies in their relative impotence. As frustrating as it may be to be openly mocked, to be tongue lashed without fear, to have to govern rather than rule, this is precisely what renders them fit for human consumption.
They are not dictators. They are executors of the public will, of our will. Their dignity has no intrinsic value, other than as a reflection on us. They have to listen to us, even begrudgingly, even if they loathe us, because we’re all they’ve got, all that grants them legitimacy. We are the ladder they climbed to reach their political fortunes. We are the ladder they are still standing on. And even if they forget it, we never should.