Pakistan on Thursday approved a controversial cybercrime bill the government says will safeguard citizens against harassment and criminalize online child pornography, but which activists say curbs free speech.
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2016 has been the focus of heated debate over provisions that critics say give the government the power to conduct mass surveillance and criminalize satire.
Farieha Aziz, director of the Bolo Bhi digital rights group, said a section intended to tackle cyber-stalking was drafted in sweeping language that would allow public officials criticized on social media to claim they were being harassed. It was of particular concern, she said, that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority would be allowed to ban speech considered “against the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan.”
“This should not be the task of an executive body, this is a matter for the courts,” she added.
Gul Bukhari, an activist with the campaign group Bytes for All, said: “It authorizes the state to exchange the private information of citizens with foreign governments or agencies without recourse to any judicial framework.”
Defending the bill, I.T. Minister Anusha Rahman told AFP: “We have built in safeguards against misuse. It is not as sweeping as it has been made out to be—for most offences, the government will still need to go to court to get a warrant against offenders,” adding the only exceptions were child pornography and cyber-terrorism.
She added that “dishonest intent” was also a requirement for an offender to be punished.
Free speech campaigners in Pakistan have long complained of creeping censorship in the name of protecting religion or preventing obscenity.
In November 2011 the telecommunications authority tried to ban nearly 1,700 “obscene” words from text messages, which included innocuous terms such as ‘lotion’, ‘athlete’s foot’ and ‘idiot.’
YouTube was banned from 2012 to January this year following the upload of a U.S.-made film with blasphemous depictions of Islam’s Prophet that triggered protests across the Muslim world. In 2010 Pakistan shut down Facebook for nearly two weeks over its hosting of allegedly blasphemous pages. It continues to restrict thousands of online links.