Monday, August 1, 2016

Business Recorder Column Aug 2, 2016

Draconian Cybercrimes Bill Rashed Rahman The Cybercrimes Bill 2016 has been unanimously passed by the Senate after incorporating about 55 amendments in the draft received from the National Assembly. It will now be sent back to the National Assembly for consideration. The National Assembly had discussed the Bill in committee earlier but failed to pass it before the deadline for the Bill expired. Although the Senate version of the Bill was passed unanimously after the Senate’s deliberations, disquiet and reservations regarding its provisions and the punishments prescribed remain. For one, Minister of State for IT Anusha Rehman’s claims of all stakeholders, civil society, etc, being consulted and taken on board after public hearings do not stand up to scrutiny, since these groups continue to criticise the fact that their views and objections to the draconian thrust of the Bill have not been taken into account. Even in wider society, apprehensions abound regarding the purposes and workings of the legislation. The government claims cyber crime, terrorism and various social ills such as women’s harassment or child pornography online pose new challenges that require a special law to control and regulate the complex and rapidly evolving world of cyberspace. While there is weight in the argument that misuse and abuse of the unprecedented freedom and outreach of the internet for terrorist, hate and other crimes is a fact of life, seemingly harmless online activity such as simply sharing memes lampooning politicians to downloading your favourite movie or TV show could also attract the penal clauses of the Bill, with varying punishments up to 14 years imprisonment and fines up to Rs 50 million. Also, the authority to manage this prosecution (persecution in some cases?) will be a body under the executive. An attempt has been made through the amendments introduced in the Senate to provide parliamentary and judicial oversight but critics are not satisfied this will be sufficient to prevent recurring abuse of the law. Other criticisms of the Bill revolve around its nebulous, overly generalised language, opening the doors to the possibility of endless abuse by overzealous guardians of Pakistan’s cyber frontiers. These critics argue that misuse or abuse of cyberspace, if they cause tangible harm, can and should be dealt with under the existing penal codes. Second, it has been argued that the legislators who passed this Bill know very little about the possible consequences of what they have proposed. The Bill has been rushed through while going through the motions of a public and parliamentary debate. Even its authors admit it is not ‘perfect’. Why the hurry? What was the pressing rationale for not allowing experts in the field (far more to be found outside rather than in parliament) to have their say, thoroughly debate the provisions and implications of the Bill, and come to a sensible consensus that would have weighed the inalienable right of freedom of speech against the purported concerns of the movers of this legislation? As it stands, the Bill has not satisfied its critics that it is not fundamentally skewed against the constitutional democratic right of freedom of expression. Again, critics are not prepared to concede in the matter of this Bill that it is ‘democratic’ merely because it bears the imprimatur of parliament. Rather, in their eyes it bears the stamp of a ‘fascist’ piece of legislation that can and may be used against dissident opinion in our society of all shades and hues, but particularly of the progressive and liberal variety. Can the exploitation of cyberspace by terrorists and hatemongers be prevented by such legislation? It seems a tall ask, if not a virtual impossibility. Perhaps our legislators should have occupied themselves more usefully in crafting the missing counter-narrative to the terrorists and intolerant elements in our society and discovering, amongst other means, the methods of disseminating it through the internet and cyberspace. The internet and cyberspace are new worlds inadequately understood by most people. In this unenlightened category must now regretfully be added the worthies who inhabit the hallowed halls of our parliament. Democracy is desirable, but if our elected representatives fail to uphold the collective wisdom of society through their own pooled wisdom, where is the aggrieved citizen to turn? As it is, the much needed continuation of democracy notwithstanding, our elected representatives have not covered themselves with legislative glory and on occasion, crocodile tears notwithstanding, attracted heaps of ignominy on themselves (e.g. the 21st Amendment that conceded the setting up of military courts). What our legislator worthies have failed to grasp is that the internet inherently, by its very design, cannot be controlled or regulated. One has only to cast one’s eye back on the farce of the ban on YouTube, which was almost immediately breached by our incredibly smart, tech-savvy youth, to realise that our parliamentarians are on a Quixotic mission of tilting against windmills. Nowhere in the world, despite concerns about cyber security, terrorist recruitment and the like, have governments attempted to control the internet world and cyberspace by throwing the baby of the unprecedented freedom associated with the new technology out with the bathwater of concerns about security, terrorism and morality. So what after all is the real purpose behind an exercise that is more than likely to end in a futile chase after shadows? It is precisely the lack of control and inability to regulate the world of the internet and cyberspace that terrifies a ruling elite that has succeeded in ‘taming’ the old mainstream media. It is the new media of the future that this elite wishes to bring under its putrefying thumb. In this endeavour, however, it may find the Myth of Sisyphus a good source to predict how this will end: not with a bang, but a whimper, repeated endlessly until ennui overtakes us all.

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