Censoring Digital Landscape

Wasio Abbasi
April 14, 2015

Pakistan has experienced massive growth of internet users in the last 10 years. With one of the lowest broadband rates in the region and rapidly expanding user base of popular social media platforms, Pakistan has one of the most active online users in the world.

Pakistanis have also put it to strong use. Be it Lawyers Movement of 2007 or elections of 2013, active campaigns were run by individuals as well as groups that made huge impact both locally and globally. With relatively weak censorship the people of Pakistan have enjoyed freedom online which is available to only few other countries.

With the new cybercrime bill, this is all going to change. For past many years several stakeholders have been at loggerheads for a strong and thorough cybercrime law that catches the criminal, does not infringe upon individual’s freedom and comply with Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. They came up with a well-thought and detailed draft that satisfied local authorities, digital rights groups and international experts that was forwarded to Ministry of IT for consideration. There, however, it has regressed severely and several clauses were amended to introduce draconian measures.

The language of the bill is so broad, it seems geared towards targeting individual rights rather than catching criminals. Actions as simple as sending out event invite, request to fill survey form or asking to like a page on Facebook can land a person in jail for spamming. Similarly sending out an SMS without written permission from the recipient, expressly permitting for contact via mobile phone, can be counted as Cyber Stalking that can lead to a jail term and/or fine. Detailed processes to protect individual rights have been replaced by sweeping powers and what should have remained as FIA’s domain has been put under government’s discretion. From search warrants to conducting investigation, all processes have been generalized to the detriment of the individual.

In its current form the bill is a tool of oppression. To understand the full impact one should go through the detailed analysis done by Bolo Bhi, a rights advocacy group that was part of negotiation of the earlier draft. Similar details have also been covered by Dawn, Digital Saeen and Express Tribune in recent days. When the bill not only curtail rights but also prohibit criticism over government and parliament individuals, it is not made for the people.

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