The National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication on Thursday approved the controversial “The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015”. IT industry experts and activists, including Internet Service Providers Association and Pakistan Software Houses Associations and other NGOs – which were initially involved in formulating laws – complain that they were excluded from the final drafting of the bill. While it is true that there is a need for legislation to prevent “cybercrime” and “cyber terrorism”, the proposed act has been criticised as “draconian” and “senseless”. It is the same old story of poorly worded legislation open to misinterpretation and abuse of power and rights, formulated by people with limited knowledge of the subject as evident from their work.

Take Section 9, for example. It makes it illegal for a person to “glorify an offence or the person accused or convicted of a crime”, “support terrorism or activities of proscribed organisations”, or “advance religious or sectarian hatred.” What qualifies as glorification of an offence? Why is it illegal to “glorify”, whatever that means, a person merely “accused” of a crime? Aren’t people innocent until found guilty by a court of law? Would defending a blasphemy accused, for example, be considered criminal activity deserving of fines and imprisonment? Moreover, the bill fails to explain what would be deemed as advancing “religious or sectarian hatred”. In Pakistan, many activists and writers who merely identify and comment on sectarian issues are accused of working on a sectarian agenda. What is to prevent “authorized officers” from harassing, if not punishing them?

Section 34 empowers the “Authority”, which will be set up to implement PECA2015, to order any service provider to “remove” or “block access” to any content, if it deems it to be “in the interest of glory of Islam or integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality…” Any “Authority” or officer on its behalf will have to pass subjective judgments to implement this section, which is absolutely unacceptable. This is a direct assault on freedom of speech, which entails the freedom to comment on religion, political and security issues and everything else under the sun for that matter. Why is the government so concerned about the glory of Islam and not any other religion practiced in this country?  Will criticizing the government and military be considered against the interest of Pakistan’s security and public order? Who are these friendly foreign states? And whoever they are, why are people not allowed to criticise them? Who decides what is immoral and indecent? Some deem bare skin immoral. Others find violence and hate speech immoral. The government has no business criminalising opinions and political and personal expression. This bill must be opposed as it violates fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution by legitimising subjective judgments and unwarranted, unjustifiable governmental overreach.