ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has adopted a much-criticised cyber security law that grants sweeping powers to regulators to block private information they deem illegal. The National Assembly approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 late on Thursday after the Senate had unanimously adopted it last month. Government officials say internet restrictions under the new law are needed to ensure security against growing threats, such as terrorism. But the law has alarmed human rights and pro-democracy activists worried that its vague language could lead to curtailment of free speech and unfair prosecutions. Unlimited powers to decide what is illegal The director of Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Daad said that the bill allowed the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority “unlimited powers” to decide what was illegal. “The overly broad language used in the bill ensures that innocent and ignorant Pakistani citizens, unaware of the ramifications of what the bill entails, can be ensnared and find themselves subject to very harsh penalties,” said Nighat Daad, founder of a group called the Digital Rights Foundation. “There have been no provisions set in place to protect sensitive data of Pakistani users … The state cannot police people’s lives in this manner.” The law provides for up to seven years in prison for “recruiting, funding and planning of terrorism” online. Reaction on Twitter All tweets must be approved by Maryam Nawaz with a Sherrrr stamp before they are posted. #CyberCrimeBill — Altaf B. (@AltafBe) July 26, 2016 [removed][removed] Look at the comments of founder of Pakistan, #Cybercrime pic.twitter.com/Fsa4II95fs — Noor (@noorkust) August 11, 2016 [removed][removed] #Cybercrime is #CyberCryTime for Social Media Abusers, fake account traders, Photoshop Genius, Lie Factories — ????? (@FactualPartisan) August 11, 2016 [removed][removed] Anyone can unlock your personal electronic device The bill also allows “authorized officers” to require anyone to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other device during an investigation. Activists say the bill’s vague language without well-defined descriptions for libel or defamation typical in other countries’ could be used to prosecute any satirical website, including political ones. The law also carries a penalty of three years for “spoofing”. “Whoever with dishonest intention establishes a website or sends any information with a counterfeit source intended to be believed by the recipient or visitor of the website, to be an authentic source commits spoofing,” the law says. The bill is a disaster “Once the bill is being allowed to engulf Pakistan, it will be disastrous. Despite being told time and again about its ramifications, and how this bill cripples democratic discourse at every level, our lawmakers have gone ahead and passed the bill, deeply problematic provisions included,” says Daad. Bill allows an incredible amount of discretionary power “The current form of PECB Bill will allow numerous institutions to clamp down on any form of speech that they decide to be a threat to the ‘greater national interest’. The Bill will allow an incredible amount of discretionary power where the decisions will be taken by an individual and/or organisation, and will be open only to subjective discussion. The need of the hour is to introduce the laws which safeguards interests of common man than shutting him down,” Activist Hammad Anwar shares his views with Daily Times. A proper Bill or mere words? “No Bill of Law should ever be subjected to sweeping statements. I think saying that the Cyber Crime Bill is “Draconian” is just such an erroneous classification. At the same time, no Bill of Law should be viewed as mere words on a page – rather the social ramifications of a bill should be taken into account as well,” says Political economist and activist Mobeen Chughtai. He opines that the Cyber Crime Bill, as proposed in its current form, is ill-conceived and ill-drafted. What I mean to say is that, while there are certainly several proposals within the law that are desperately needed in order to protect and safeguard the common man from infringement, violation of rights and terrorism, there are many others that make otherwise law-abiding citizens vulnerable to punishment. Chughtai told that, “The bill does not fully “peg” an act as a crime i.e. it leaves a lot to the discretion of the enforcement agencies and investigation officers during the process of investigation. It is no secret that our law enforcement agencies are staffed with individuals who have a very backward approach towards investigation techniques and procedures. Giving such individuals carte blanche in matters they are intellectually and professionally ill-equipped for is just inviting trouble”. Also, he proposes that the bill should be augmented with a mandatory training and testing regime, carried out by third party training organizations and evaluators, so that the capacity of law enforcement organizations can be enhanced up to the level required for this bill to actually prove useful. However, Yasser views it differently Lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani told Daily Times, “Cybercrime bill after the amendments by the senate is a considerably approved bill in terms of human rights and civil liberties. There are still concerns, particularly about Section 34 and PTA’s powers but even there thankfully an appeal is provided to the High Court. Instead of now attacking the bill, as some self-serving self-styled “digital rights activists” are primarily for donor funding, we should join together as civil society and ensure that the implementation of the bill and the jurisprudence that would develop under it is sound and has all the legitimate exceptions that would help safeguard the civil liberties of individuals.” He says that it is extremely important that lawyers and activists are now on their toes especially in defense of the accused to ensure that the law is not interpreted in a way that would impact our liberties. “There are a number of very important things that have been introduced through the law. Chief amongst them is the intermediary liability protection that was a long standing demand of international tech companies wanting to do business in Pakistan. They wanted to protect as intermediaries and for the first time, Pakistan has given them intermediary liability protection through Section 35 of the law,” Yasser added. The pro lawyer affirms that this is why the law had to be passed. Those who have been forwarding the view that the law should not have been passed, are not being honest to the cause of digital rights in Pakistan. Also the law is admirable in the way it deals with child pornography and safeguards individuals against cyber stalking and harassment which are major problems with our social media. The clauses on hate speech protect against glorification of murderers and terrorists like Mumtaz Qadri. Critical infrastructure has also been protected. These were all very important things that needed to build in. While stressing upon the facts Yasser said, “There was a draconian law. Amendments in the senate – inspired by public outcry- ensured that it was turned into a more human rights friendly law. It is not perfect and I have several concerns about implementation but I recognize that it would all depend on the training of judges in cyber law. That would be the most important thing. I do not however subscribe to the doomsday scenarios that certain self-serving people are painting for their own financial interests”. How will this law prove any different? Chughtai points out that the element of subjectivity and individual interpretation, that is nestled so deep within this bill, should be addressed to the satisfaction of civil society representatives so that the bill actually performs what it was designed to do i.e. eliminate terrorist outreach through social media rather than laying the foundation for thousands of needless and useless cases. Our judicial process is already notorious for the processing time required before justice is actually dispensed. Imagine thousands of new cases, that need not have been filed in the first place, added to this already staggering burden. When you leave a bill “loose”, as is the case here, it gives way to selective implementation. Take, for instance, the Blasphemy Law. It is the same subjective interpretation built into the law that leaves it open for misuse and selectivity. It is this which results in poor accused individuals languishing in jails for years while rich accused are hardly ever charged. For example, when was an ex-pop star, who confessed that he had transgressed and apologized for his act on video, ever charged with Blasphemy? How is this not VIP culture, albeit in a judicial sense? He asserted that laws need to be taken seriously and effects of those laws need to be scrutinized before, during and after the drafting process in order for them to serve the people rather than those laws becoming an impediment to healthy society. Governments around the world have been grappling with how to block online incitement to criminal activity, while major internet services have stepped up campaigns to identify and remove Web postings that incite violence. Facebook, Google and Twitter are working more aggressively to combat online propaganda and recruiting by Islamist militants while trying to avoid the perception they are helping state authorities police the Web. More than 30 million of Pakistan’s 190 million people use the internet, mainly on mobile telephones, according to digital rights organization Bytes for All.