Islamabad, Pakistan — Today, the Parliament of Pakistan approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB), with the stated intent to crackdown on spamming, cyber stalking, and a long list of other actions taken online. The bill imposes new restrictions — many of which the government has already enforced but are now codified — that will be far reaching, such as a last-minute amendment that will extend the bill’s reach so that it applies globally. The bill creates significant and considerable jail time for offenders, which will include security researchers and everyday internet users. Opposition parties did not support the bill.
“It is unfortunate that yet another bill intended to make the internet more secure instead globally undermines digital security and privacy,” said Drew Mitnick, Policy Counsel at Access Now. “Even security researchers, who try to make online systems safer for everyday users, could face jail time. Moving forward, the government should build in protections to ensure that vague terms and broad authorizations don’t further encroach upon digital rights.”
The PECB is set to further government suppression of online speech as restrictions on online platforms have been a regular occurrence in recent years. One provision of the law formalizes the power of government authorities to block access to content for “public order, decency, or morality.” Those justifications have already been invoked to block widely used websites such as YouTube and Facebook.
The new law also codifies government powers that implicate privacy and security, such as obligating individuals to assist with decrypting or otherwise providing assistance to government officials in accessing data. But it’s unclear how that assistance would be limited or its potential impact of security systems. Provisions that criminalize access or interference with data or systems are broadly written so that they could include the work of security researchers.
“The law is a significant misstep in the effort to create a more secure and safe internet in the country,” said Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “It fails to address the very real need to strengthen digital security in the region, and throws out human rights at the moment when they are most needed. The government should invite real, effective input from civil society groups in Pakistan and other experts to make sure the accompanying regulations build in strong safeguards.”
Since the bill was first introduced in 2014, civil society organizations, lawyers, legislators and many others in Pakistan have worked toward legislation that better protects user rights. Their efforts led to improvements in the text — despite efforts by supporters of the bill to limit civil society participation.
Although the bill has passed, the government will now have to work to create regulations to implement the legislation in practice.
Drew Mitnick, Policy Counsel
Note, this post was updated to reflect that the bill was introduced in 2014, not 2006. The 2006 legislation was called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, which is no longer in force.