I have a theory, a theory based strongly on not only intuition, but on precedence. Just recently, the National Assembly’s standing committee on IT passed a bill regarding cyber crime, which quickly advanced through the ranks and was passed by the senate on the 26th of July 2016. The bill has been criticized for being vague and having too broad a scope in some cases, giving a singular authority too much power over the content we can see, write, and publish on the Internet. Throughout this bill we can see the words ‘morality’ and ‘indecency’ sprinkled, in order to justify the control that this bill provides to the government of Pakistan. It also tries to invoke and pacify religious parties at the same time by ‘protecting the glory of Islam’ and while I have no problem with this particular line, I feel that they should have added the glory/respect for every religion.

Nonetheless, what worries me is not the fact that such a bill has passed. Pakistan is a young entrant into the world of the internet and therefore there was always a need for the government to come up with proper legislation on major issues such as internet fraud or cyber stalking. However, to assert such control over the free space that is the internet was never a need required to be fulfilled. We have seen several times that websites which are there to support or promote freedom of any sort have been removed or blocked by ISPs simply because they were instructed to do so by the PTA. Incidents such as the ban on Word Press, a blog hosting site, while citing the reason of national security and the banning of YouTube, a video hosting site, that could have also been used to defend the ‘glory of Islam’, because of ‘blasphemous’ content, are prime examples. On the surface, it might seem like a good thing that the government wants to protect the religious sentiments or maintain decency within its citizens. However, we must realize that through this we are giving the government a license to jump into our daily lives and monitor our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs and even go so far as to curtail expressions which are ‘indecent’.

According to this bill, your ISPs are to save your browsing data for one year (section 29) and if the government wants to, it can get access to all things that are considered private including your devices with considerable ease (section 32). Now, proponents of the government will assert that there will be proper checks and balances for everything defined in the bill but that is the thing- even if the government is very honest in its intentions and ensures that this law is not taken advantage of, which is highly unlikely, how does one define ‘indecency’ or ‘immorality’? Will my questioning of the ‘Mullahs’ raping children or them passing a recommendation allowing for the ‘light’ beating of women, be considered as me defiling the religion (section 18)? Will my criticism of the Saudi Government regarding its foreign policy be called as conspiracy against ‘allies’? These are purely subjective measures which allow the government almost unlimited power and also to meddle in the daily lives of perfectly law-abiding citizens. To put this in perspective, imagine if the government said that you cannot have more than one dish served at dinner in your house; would that not be completely outrageous? With this bill, they will have the ability to take away several civil liberties ranging from the right to free speech to the right to privacy. These civil liberties are at the very core of what a democratic country should be and if one feels that a change is needed by society, the government must not force the society to change; but instead guide it and nurture it to the desired end. Any citizen has a right to his freedom of expression because only through expression and discourse can true solutions be obtained. However, with this bill we are providing the government with an excuse to remove any thing that is not in line with the ideas of the government, from arguably the most accessible and efficient portal through which one can be heard.

However, this brings me to a bigger concern: are we aloof to the repercussions that this bill can bring? In addition, why was there no opposition to this bill through the opposition residing in the National Assembly? This brings me on to my theory. We have seen that whenever the government has tried to extend its claws into the people’s daily lives, it has been welcomed by all those who have a vested interests. By that I mean that anyone who will one day have a chance of being in the government would only see this as a chance to extend his power in the long run. The famous Patriot Act in the US was criticised for curtailing several rights of the citizens but was passed almost unanimously by the US senate, with only one vote against the bill. In much the same way, the speed at which this bill has progressed does little to prove otherwise. The reason, in my opinion, is that when, and if, the parties which are currently in the opposition achieve control of the government, they can further their agenda, their ‘morals’, their ‘decency’ and their version of ‘religious glory’ in order to achieve control. Furthermore, most of the modern media works with sound bites; flashy taglines are used to attract the general public. With that in mind one can understand the lack of attention this bill is getting from both the media and the political parties of Pakistan, after all “Lets understand the nuances of the cyber-crime bill” is not an attractive headline. Therefore, it is clear that to expect a forceful opposition would be naïve.

It is thus our job as citizens to limit the control of the government so that it does not overreach and call out any such legislation.

I reserve my right to call out the government and its policies because it is my government- the same government that came into power due to my vote. We should not and cannot let this North-Korea-meets-the-NSA mutant of a bill take control of what are essentially our lives. This is a piece of legislation, can have very drastic effects on the internet generation of Pakistan and could further impair its progress. While I can understand that the current events of the Pakistani political landscape (Mutahida Gate) make for very good television I urge all Pakistani media outlets to at least give this bill proper coverage since this bill could mean the difference between a country, in which ideas can flow freely and pathways to progress are open or one in which non-conformity equals’ treachery. This piece of legislation may well be one of the most consequential in the history of Pakistan. It is time, I believe, we treat it as such.