Net freedom report notes rise in online blasphemy allegations
ISLAMABAD: Allegations of blasphemy related to online content have registered an increase in Pakistan, according to the recently-released ‘Freedom on the Net 2015’ report.
Compiled by Freedom House – a US government-funded organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights issues – the report once again awarded Pakistan a ‘Not Free’ score on internet freedom.
On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the worst, Pakistan received a 69. According to a press release issued by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), 2015 marks the fourth consecutive year that Pakistan has been categorised as ‘Not Free’.
Earlier, Pakistan had earned its best score of ‘partly free’ in 2011.
The report highlights that blasphemy allegations levelled online have increased in the 2014-2015 period. It also stated that a hacking attack on a surveillance software company, Hacking Team, revealed that Pakistani intelligence had been interacting with the company for years and that law enforcement agencies had wanted software that would work with older mobile phone models common in Pakistan.
Despite being a defining moment in the ongoing conversation in Pakistan about surveillance and internet freedom, the Hacking Team revelations received little national attention. According to DRF Executive Director Nighat Dad, this may have been because there was no concrete evidence linking intelligence officials to the company itself.
The report discusses aspects of internet freedom such as content filtering, the legal environment, surveillance, rights and violations, availability and ease of access, intimidation and violence and technical attacks.
A press release quoted Freedom on the Net research analyst Madeline Earp as saying, “We are troubled to report that Pakistan’s poor internet freedom score failed to improve in 2015. Communications shutdowns, violence, and blasphemy charges related to online content continue to restrict the environment for ordinary internet users. The government has also failed to lift the ongoing ban on YouTube.”
The report also cited increasing online harassment and threats to free expression online. It stated that while incidents and reports of such incidents have increased in Pakistan – over 3,000 cybercrimes were reported to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) between August 2014 and August 2015 – many victims do not come forward “for fear of losing access to ICTs”.
It added that even as technical attacks and online harassment cases increase, the FIA often ignores attacks affecting regular users. The report states that the FIA said that “due to the absence of a law defining cybercrime, the body is unable to ensure that all criminals will be brought to justice”.
However, the report goes on to state that efforts to pass an anti-cybercrime law have been problematic.
It states that existing laws can invoke either blasphemy or terrorism to limit expression, and that the fiercely debated draft Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015 could give intelligence agencies “unrestricted mass surveillance powers”.