The Cybercrime bill that has already been approved by the lower house of National Assembly is now awaiting Senate approval. Once approved, the bill will be written into law. Critics claim that the law will curb free speech and dissent, and will turn lack of awareness of the ordinary citizen into jail time. However, I am not going to comment on the bill as a whole. My aim here is to zero-in on only one aspect of the bill: Touching someone’s cell phone or laptop or merely hitting a key without permission. If this element of the bill comes into force, it can have far reaching consequences for the innocent citizens who are unaware of their actions. A mere complaint that someone used your phone or laptop with nefarious intent can invoke jail time of up to six months or a fine of up to one hundred thousand rupees or both.

Section 3 of the Cybercrime Bill states:

“Whoever with malicious intent gains unauthorized access to any information system or data shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to one hundred thousand rupees or with both.”

Let us visit Section 2 of the bill and see what each term means. Unauthorized is defined as “access to data without authorization or in violation of the terms and conditions of the authorization”. “Access” is defined as “gaining control to read, copy, or delete data held by a device”. Malicious intent is defined as……….wait, what? Its not defined? Yes, that’s right, its not defined. So what does that mean? That means that the law is obscure in as much as malicious intent is concerned. And accusing someone of malicious intent without defining malicious is sketchy.  Malicious intent can be construed in an endless number of ways. The term is practically open to interpretation by law enforcement agencies. Implying malice or harm is a shaky assumption. Just about anyone can accuse anyone of wrong intention. If anyone can call my intention malicious, I don’t feel safe.

What’s even worse is the fact that I can be searched and arrested anytime by any law enforcement agency without a warrant.  Why? Because the bill gives overarching powers to the law enforcement agencies.

Section 24 of the bill states:

“The Government may constitute joint investigation team comprising of the officers of special investigation agency and any other law enforcement agency”

It further says:

“No person other than a prosecutor designated as such by the special investigating agency shall prosecute any offence under this Act.”

This is vague but let me try to explain it to the best of my ability. What that means is that this is pretty much a one-man show. The police/law enforcement agency designated by the government will have all-embracing powers. This could either mean that the law enforcement agency will be able to search and arrest without a court warrant or with a warrant that is just a formality. A member of the National Assembly argued that the law enforcement agencies should not need a warrant to search or arrest a cyber-terrorist. Defending the cybercrime bill, a former army major said that fighting terrorism needs rapid action and wasting time with court approvals and warrants cannot be in national interest.

The Bill that is now waiting to be tabled in the upper house of the parliament is, at best, a loosely worded draft. It is a slap-dash compilation of legal mumbo-jumbo that contains issues that are open to misinterpretation. If not addressed properly, the provisions in the bill may infringe on some of the constitutional rights of Pakistani citizens. One example being the right to protection from undue searches. Perhaps those drafting the bill are forgetting that the constitution of Pakistan affords its citizens some rights that are inalienable. And no law has the power to violate those rights. The bill already went through some major changes before it was accepted by the standing Information Technology committee and the National assembly. However, more changes are required to cover loopholes that can render innocent citizens guilty.

With internet and cell phone usage gaining momentum in Pakistan, the country badly needed a cybercrime bill. Rampant data theft, hacking, and black mailing necessitate the need for cyber laws that curb criminal activities in the sphere of internet and cell phone use. However, the bill so far indicates a lack of understanding about how Information Technology works.

Before the cybercrime bill is passed and written into law, it should be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny. It should be kept in mind that once the cybercrime bill is passed as legislation, it will become a yardstick for all future Information Technology bills raised in the parliament. The bill which is still at a crude stage is yet to be debated in the senate which therefore means it is still up for further amendments. We still have time on our hands. Let us hope firm steps are taken by those in position of power to eradicate shortcomings of the bill.