Although introduced as ‘’an expedient to prevent unauthorised acts with respect to information systems, and provide for related offences as well as mechanisms for investigation, prosecution, trial, and international cooperation,’’ the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB), as most information technology experts contend, seems to be focused more on the moral aspect of Internet use - unnecessarily restricting free exchange of expression and opinion - than on its primary purpose as a response of the government to the increasing prevalence of cybercrime in Pakistan.

Consider the vague language in which the bill is presented, which allows it to be used to prosecute a person even if their actions are not necessarily criminal. Take Section 4, in which the term unauthorised access is used in a manner that does not exempt investigative journalists or bloggers, whose activities are not regarded as criminal otherwise, from prosecution. Or Section 18, which criminalises exhibiting or transmitting false information that is likely to ‘’harm the reputation or privacy of a person’’ made punishable by a fine of 1 million rupees or a jail term of 3 years - or both. However, the section makes no distinction between mild satire and true defamation or endangerment (which is, regardless, more than covered by the Pakistan Penal Code and the Defamation Act 2002). Hence, while this law-enactment could reasonably be applied against violence-inciting, anarchist affirmations, it could also, disproportionately, be exploited against assertions not necessarily so. It is left to individual discretion to decide the category in which a given assertion fits, which could very well be subject to personal preference. This section could, consequently, be applied to political satire, which is unreasonable; there is no proof of any malicious intent whatsoever in political caricatures, which are purely for entertainment, or indeed in most information uploaded online – that such actions cannot reasonably be open to prosecution is not considered by the bill. This bill is, as a result, inconsistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prescribes punishment in only ‘’ the most serious of cases.’’

No form of legislation can be said to have been passed for the social security of an individual or the economic or national security of a country if it is not in line with said country’s moral code. This principle subjects the bill to further criticism. Let us examine Section 34 as an example. This measure authorises the government to ‘’remove or block or issue directions for the removal or blocking of access to information through any information system.’’ As a result, the PTA will have the authority to judge whether what is made available online is appropriate for the welfare for this country and its people. This is necessary for radical, anti-government material but the bill is not limited only to this. Any ‘’dissenting view,’’ for instance an expert’s criticism of an administrative measure, could be removed, from any device, as the PTA judges appropriate, which (within the boundaries of transgression) is a check on one’s passive expression of opinion.

One of the primary purposes of the bill, then, is to restrict access to any information or narrative that indicates misconduct by the administration, thereby allowing it to avoid being held responsible for said misconduct; to reduce the possibility of discredit, and at the same time, curb already limited liberties.

In professional life, the scope for expressing one’s personal view on any given matter isn’t much, because people are unclear on what exactly draws the line between legally exercising their freedom of speech and unwarranted slander. Taking issue with a politician or political party’s objective, or suggesting a possible reform in an institution, could be seen as an act of defamation, which could in turn lead to personal or professional setbacks. This is the reason people often use social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp, or Twitter, to express their personal views or concerns. To have that taken away from them would mean taking away their last outlet of individual opinion, which would increase their resentment; in the long run, this is more undesirable for sake of the national security of this country.

Simply put, if the aim of passing the PECB is to improve national and Internet security, then the government has missed the mark by failing to target the proper hindrances. At this critical stage in Pakistan’s political and military stability, the government should instead focus on building a single point for reporting cyber fraud and improving police response at the local level, as well as encouraging, supporting, and developing education of cyber crime at all levels, including crucial key skills and R&D (a similar strategy has been used in the UK with success).

It is necessary to appropriately specify what is classified as cyber crime. Note here that no obvious distinction has been made between political satire and online propaganda by terrorist organisations in the present bill; the government must amend the bill to penalise criminal behaviour with respect to magnitude and need. This may certainly be easier said than done, but it will certainly curb cyber crime.