Reporters Without Borders condemns a cyber-crime law called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance which President Asif Ali Zardari issued yesterday and which sets very harsh penalties for blogging offences, hacking and spamming.
“The penalties in this law are disproportionate and the concepts of cyber-crime and terrorist intent are still very vague,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Ever since it was first mooted, the authorities have defending it by referring to US journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder, which they blame on his abductors’ ability to exchange emails and agree on his death. Pearl’s abduction and murder were crimes but sending an email is not.”
The law says: “The expression ‘terroristic intent’ means to act with the purpose to alarm, frighten, disrupt, harm, damage, or carry out an act of violence against any segment of the population, the government or entity associated therewith.”
“Nothing in the law’s wording has been modified or clarified since January,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It still prevents a blogger from posting photos or video showing someone who has not given their consent. Pakistan obviously has a right to adopt a law to combat cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, but it is vital that it should not obstruct press freedom and free expression. We call for its revision.”
The law is retroactive and applies to web content posted since 29 September and to email messages sent since the same date. The text of the law was originally unveiled by the Pakistani authorities on 7 January. Reporters Without Borders wrote to the minister of information technology and telecommunications, Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari, on 15 January voicing its concern about the threat it posed to press freedom.
Aside from creating an information and communication technologies tribunal, the law has two articles that pose a particular danger for the free flow of information and personal privacy online:
Article 13 on "Cyber stalking" makes it a crime for Internet users to "take or distribute pictures or photographs of any person without his consent or knowledge." Citizen journalism of the kind practised by bloggers is based on precisely this sort of activity.
Article 28 on retention of traffic data says: “A service provider shall, within its existing or required technical capability, retain its traffic data for a minimum period of 90 days and provide that data to the investigating agency or the investigating officer when required. The Federal Government may extend the period to retain such data as and when it deems appropriate.”
Spamming - the sending of unsolicited advertising or promotional material by email - is punishable by three months in prison under the new law. Spoofing - disguising the origin of spam email - is punishable by three months in prison and a fine.
Last February, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) ordered 70 ISPs to block access to the video-sharing website YouTube for four days on the grounds that the proportion of “anti-Islamic videos” had increased.