August Issue 2015

By | Society | Published 5 years ago

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy is Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Forman Christian College University, Lahore

In the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, “unauthorised access” is defined as “access to an information system or data without authorisation or in violation of the terms and conditions of the authorisation.” This, along with the copying and transmission of data obtained via unauthorised means, are punishable offences. Don’t you think the term ‘unauthorised access’ is, at best, vague, and can be used by the government to suit its needs?

This PECB clause is a bit like saying you must not walk through a door unless you have authorisation, but without saying whose permission must be sought, or if permission is needed at all. We have gained enough experience over the centuries to have established some kind of a shared moral and ethical code. Hence we freely walk into a hotel’s foyer but not into the cashier’s office or an occupied bedroom. Cyber space is different. Because it did not exist until recently, the rules are still evolving. In many situations it is not possible to say who has legitimate authority or ownership over the data in an information system. In other cases — like breaking into a caché of passwords used for electronic banking — the intent is clearly malafide. Or, as in the case of Axact, where there was a clear attempt to defraud in the name of distance learning and earn profit through the sale of fake degrees. What is clear, however, is that this clause gives the authorities an instrument of control. In principle it can be used to bring order into chaos. In practice, as in China, it can be used to censor and regulate what should be generally known.

How do you think the above clause will impact journalism in particular?

In Pakistan, journalists do not particularly fear this kind of censorship or regulation. They know of immensely more drastic and violent actions. Fifty six journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.

Having said that, the clause could well be used to withhold basic information that falls within the rights of the public and to conceal the names of military and civil beneficiaries of land schemes, finances of public institutions and development schemes, etc. Lawyers representing powerful interests could use the bill to protect their client’s interests at the cost of the public’s interest. Censorship can take extreme forms. Look at the Bangladesh model of control where ideologically charged individuals within the internet policing establishment can point out to vigilantes the physical location and identity of those they consider to be wrong. Three bloggers in Bangladesh have been hacked to death and many arrested.

Do you support a completely free internet without any form of restriction on content? 

No, there is definitely harmful material that needs to be completely banned and chased off the internet. Anything that provokes hatred against people of a different race, religion and country, or encourages cruelty, bestial behaviour, or exploitation of innocents, should be excised. There is a complete global consensus, for example, that child pornography is evil. But even if there are good laws, in the hands of bad people they become useless. Using my laptop and internet connection, sitting here in Pakistan I can listen to any jihadi leader like Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar, or read their hate-filled exhortations to violence. On the other hand, if I want to read informed discussions and analyses on a website such as New Age Islam, I find myself blocked unless I use some tricky proxy server. Clearly those in charge have decided to block this site but allow others closer to their ideological aspirations. The internet in this sense is no different from textbooks, newspapers, mosque loudspeakers, or television where other religions, religious sects and nationalities are regularly maligned. All this is strictly illegal and unconstitutional, but it happens all over Pakistan.

What do you make of internet policing in Pakistan? Could it have been  done more intelligently?

One marvels at the stupidity of those who have kept YouTube banned for around four years now. They have deprived countless millions the rightful access to education, information and entertainment because of their single-minded determination to block blasphemous content. It’s throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Censorship is legitimate if it is used to prevent harm being inflicted on others, but in Pakistan it is being used to prevent the free flow of ideas. And so we see filtration being applied on religious, philosophical and political grounds. Baloch websites are banned, as are those of free-thinkers.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.

The writer is a staffer at Newsline Magazine. His website is at: www.alibhutto.com