It was a historic image, destined to become as iconic as the ‘Tank Man’ or “The Burning Monk”; interns sprinting to the phone booths – some in high heels, others in suits, all the while celebrating triumphantly – to let the news agencies know the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, one that legalised same-sex marriage across the country. As the celebrations began across the country, and were joined in by sympathizers across the world, news agencies broke the momentous news and weighed in with their analysis, ran features and debated the possible impact across the globe. Yet, in Pakistan, it barely rippled the surface of the mainstream media, which is usually in storm over even the most mundane political matters. Anchors didn’t pick it up, prime time presenters ignored it and the print media gave it a customary mention. Yet the Internet was a completely different story. Social media and its denizens were at war; the rainbow display picture – a symbol of solidarity with the LGBT community – had sparked a fierce debate, all consuming debate, and that too on perhaps one of the most taboo subjects in Pakistani society: homosexuality. It was a surreal experience; people came out and expressed their orientation, expressed solidarity, condemned non-heteronymous relationships, preached tolerance, and spread hate all in the space of a few comments – an incident unthinkable barely a decade ago, and even today on the mainstream media. The continued evolution of communication technology has continually fostered rational debate and accountability, but it is now, the modern age of man, where the Internet has truly set him free. This is the final frontier, one that makes each individual a broadcaster in his or her own right; and it is already under siege.

Pakistani web pages have been operating under constant threat of closure by the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW), whose powers are now administered by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The body is infamous for banning YouTube following the posting of a ‘blasphemous video’ and for its diligent and concerned action against pornography. What is less known is the fact that the body has banned countless other websites and pages which have nothing to do with pornography, blasphemy or spreading terrorism – the later being the purpose why the IMCEW was originally established. The PTA has banned secular and liberal pages, pages that publish news from Balochistan and Kashmir, pages that question the state and even pages belonging to musicians who merely sing about revolution and change. All this has been happening under executive orders, and was thus open to legislative challenge; once that had been made by local rights group the government responded with a new cybercrime bill, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, which not only seeks to provide retrospective legitimacy to such blatant censorship, but also aims to give the government countless other powers, which will allow the government to throttle freedom of expression on the internet.

A cyber crime bill was surely needed; the complex and often technical actions that constitute cyber crime cannot be subsumed in existing legislation, and in this regard the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 does provide protection. Hacking, harassment over the Internet, identity theft and unauthorised access to devices has been criminalised and defined, as has been spamming and hate speech. Yet poor drafting and isolation from stakeholders in the consultation process means the bill curbs civil liberties and focuses more on moral aspects of Internet use than cybercrime itself. The words used to describe this bill lend credence to the gravity of this problem. While Internet Service Providers Association Convener Wahajus Siraj described the bill as “draconian”, Pakistan Software Houses Association Board Member Afaque Ahmad termed it “wrong and senseless”.

Foremost among the clauses that causes members of the information technology community anxiety is clause 34, which reads “(1) The Authority or any officer authorised by it in this behalf may direct anyservice provider, to remove any intelligence or block access to such intelligence, if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence”.In an environment where the slightest provocation can lead to charges of blasphemy and critics of the state are term ‘traitor’ with reckless abandon; a vague, all encompassing clause like this should send alarm bells ringing. What is ‘the glory of Islam’ and what would offend against it? Insult to the canonised prophets and the tenants surely fall into this, but what about things that fall in the grey areas; arguments that seek to modernise Islam, or criticism of more fundamental dogmas – they can easily be construed as attacking Islam; and in fact have been in the past. When Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen and asked Pakistan to lend its military to the campaign, a veritable avalanche of resistance from the public through all forms of media alerted the government of the public’s wishes; and nipped any thought of intervention in the bud, leaving Saudi rulers fuming. Would such criticism damage “friendly relations with a foreign state”? What about criticism of the Chinese policy of religious repression in the Xinjiang province, is that permitted? The latter part of the clause is imported word to word from article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, with the proviso that the above-mentioned things are protected. What the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Technology fails to recognize is that a constitutional clause is supposed to be a standard setting clause, which outlines idealized objectives but assumes their pursuit would involve further detailed legislation. Importing the clause wholesale is shirking government duty to legislate – and a rather transparent attempt to stay on the right side of the Supreme Court. Terms like “anti-state” and “national interest” is subjective, and granting the PTA unfettered authority to decide the interpretation of these terms is a violation of fundamental human rights. Not least because the PTA is not a democratically elected institution, making its views on religion, national interest and security one sided and subject to bias.

This is not the only problem with the bill; it extends its tentacles in several directions. Service providers are required to store user data for up to a year so that law enforcement can access it if need be; without a definition for service providers, it requires all schools, libraries, internet cafes and even restaurants which offer Wi-Fi to store user data; which is not only a violation of privacy rights – as no warrant has been issued to access the records of users – and it puts undue financial burden on small service providers to store raw data, which would require most to install expensive hardware. Other sections such sections 9, 15, 18, 22, 29, which criminalise text messaging and emailing without the receiver’s consent, should be omitted – designed to curb unsolicited spamming, they can easily be misused in a wide ranging context. Parody Twitter accounts, Internet memes and caricatures can land you in jail for three years or be fined Rs1 million, or both.

A badly drafted and uniformed law would not have been a problem – in fact that description seems to describe most first drafts of National Assembly bills – as they would have improved once all the stakeholders and experts pitched in. In the case of the cybercrime bill, the process has gone in the opposite direction. The previous version of the Pakistan Electronic Cybercrimes bill was drafted in 2014 with the help of Barrister Zahid Jamil, who has expertise in drafting cybercrime laws — he has previously done so for the EU and the Commonwealth and the bill was prepared over an extensive period of negotiations between stakeholders, the IT ministry and security agencies; producing a 44 page document was described as a “strong, well-thought-out and well-researched bill that rightfully protected citizens from the malicious use of the internet, while preserving their freedom of expression with certain limitations necessary for safeguarding national interests” by civil society members and rights groups. Yet the document was inexplicably scraped and a new 13-page document with wild additions was presented before the Standing Committee and hastily approved. Were it not for the vigilance of digital rights group the bill would have been law by now.

There seems to be an agenda at play; in the resulting outcry and the government’s promise of reform, IT representatives are barred from entering parliament premises after being invited, negotiations are cancelled and deadlines pushed up. In the highly censored society of Pakistan, only the relative anonymity of the Internet has allowed Pakistanis to weigh in on diverse subjects as sexuality, the Baloch insurgency and terrorism. This is the only platform where the government can’t control us. This frontier must be protected, it must be fought for.