Curbing cybercrime

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The other side of the Cybercrimes Bill

 

The government is contemplating to regulate the social media which has so far remained unregulated, with an express objective of curbing cybercrimes. A draft bill of the legislation in this regard has already been approved by the Standing Committee of the Parliament on Information Technology. The bill even before being debated in the Parliament and enacted as law is being subjected to pre-emptive criticism by the NGOs and human rights groups who contend that the bill was a retrogressive step; it would introduce state-approved morality into the Pakistani cyberspace; it gives absolute powers to the investigating agencies who will determine the prosecution and conviction of individuals under the law without giving them the chance to prove their innocence; it would usurp the freedom of expression and curb the propagation of dissenting views; it would curtail the freedom of the electronic media; it is yet another step by the government to secure its political and economic power by muzzling the right of the citizens to challenge, debate and influence public policy; it will deprive the political parties in the opposition to reach out to the masses to canvas their viewpoints; it would prematurely abort the growth of political consciousness among our youth who are the major users of the social media and deny them the luxury of growing in an atmosphere of independent use of information technology and that the bill provides no checks and balances to forestall the misuse of the law by the investigating agencies.

Ostensibly the points raised by the critics do have some merit and it would be hard to contest them without giving them the contextual dimensions. The fact is that the proponents of these views on the proposed law are looking at the issue from only one perspective. Freedom of expression, right to propagate dissenting views and access to unrestricted information and enjoyment of the benefits of the new avenues opened up by the information technology with its attendant impact of taking us into the realm of modern era in step with the world, are no doubt the desirable ingredients of progress in a democratic setup. But these liberties and rights are not absolute. There is no concept of unbridled freedom of expression and dissent anywhere in the world.

The criticism being hurled at the bill completely neglects the ill effects and the impact of cybercrimes on the society and is tantamount to denial of the role of the state and the government to intervene for the good of the society and to regulate certain areas of the national activity with a view to protecting individuals, groups and vulnerable segments of the society against crimes and the onslaught of divisive, fissiparous and harmful activities of the anti-state elements; a role that is universally accepted as the prime duty of the state and the government. The attempt to regulate the social media is not out of this world. Majority of the states have enacted laws to prevent cybercrimes and to promote healthy and productive use of the social media. The opposition to the bill is akin to the views of the proponents of the Libertarian Theory during the eighteenth and nineteenth century who saw no role for the government in regulating the society except for maintaining law and order.

The intent and purpose of the Cybercrimes Bill is in conformity with article 19 of the Constitution which reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of the press subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or nay 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.” The constitution, which represents the will of the people, clearly gives the government the right to enact laws to protect the state against the specified crimes and indiscretions to undermine the interests of the state. Who can say that the cybercrimes are non-existent and therefore there is no need to regulate the cyber industry? Who can say that the terrorists are not using the social media to propagate their agendas and polluting the minds of the youth and the masses with all the egregious consequences?

The need for the promulgation of this law must be viewed in the context of the foregoing facts and impending implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism and religious extremism which pose a credible threat to the integrity of the state. The media, unlike the past, is rightly exercising restraint in covering activities of the terrorists relating to propagation of their creed and philosophy, realising its obligations as a representative of the society and the fourth pillar of the state. Pakistan is passing through critical and extraordinary circumstances which necessitate extraordinary measures to tackle the situation.

The apprehensions and concerns being expressed about the bill by the critics are unfounded and probably they have not gone through the text of the bill properly. They are conveniently neglecting the fact that the bill purported to be introduced by the government is basically meant to prevent the misuse of the civil rights and liberties through cyberspace, promoting safe and productive use of the internet for all its users, building confidence of people in the cyberspace, enabling robust cyber security both for systems and users, protection of children from exploitation, curbing hate space and glorification of terrorism online, creation of enabling environment for IT, business and e-commerce and protection of national cyber assets.

The purpose and objectives of introducing regulatory regime for the use of cyberspace, as is evident, is beyond reproach. The regulation of the cyberspace is also relevant to our international obligations and the need to coordinate with other nations to prevent cybercrimes. The bill clearly stipulates that no agency could take action under the bill without specific orders from a designated court. The other salient feature of the draft bill is that almost all the crimes listed in it are non-cognizable, except offences of cyber terrorism and sexual abuse including child pornography. Who in his right mind would have problems with the initiative to prevent sexual abuse and pornography designed to protect children and declaring these offences as cognizable? Further the bill criminalises only intentional and unauthorised access, interception and interference and does not envisage to restrict any authorised academic activity. In regards to trial of the offenders, the bill recognises the application of PPC, CrPC and Law of Evidence except in cases of a few offences of very serious nature against the state. It also makes provision for juvenile courts where minors are involved in the offences listed in the draft bill.

The legislation to regulate cyberspace is a dire necessity to check cybercrimes and to promote healthy and beneficial use of the social media. There is a universal consensus that while the benefits and blessings of the explosion of information technology cannot be denied to the citizens, it is equally essential and inescapable responsibility of the government to ensure protection of the rights of the citizens for a safe and congenial atmosphere to engage in productive and healthy pursuits and the preservation of their privacy. In my considered view, this is what the proposed legislation desires to achieve.