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DAWN Editorials – 14th December 2015

Cybercrime bill

THE government needs reminding that the only thing worse than the lack of a legislative framework covering an area of operations is a set of bad laws.

This seems to be the case regarding the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, finalised by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications, a report on which was laid before parliament on Friday.

With the digital footprint expanding fast in Pakistan and the rapidly increasing use of information technology and the Internet by those who have access, certainly there is a need to develop laws to curb these tools being used in problematic fashions.

Take a look: New cybercrime bill tough on individuals’ rights, soft on crime

These include a range of activities, from support provided by technology and the online world to heinous crimes such as militancy and terrorism, to practices more pedestrian but almost equally devastating on the level of the individual such as cyber-stalking, fraud and data theft. But is the PECB in its current iteration the best way forward?

Amongst industry representatives and stakeholders, there seems to be near unanimous consensus that it is not. Legislators need to pay heed.

The problems with this bill in its current form appear to be numerous, some of which were articulated by PPP MNA Shazia Marri who submitted a dissenting note when the report was tabled in parliament.

Raising objections to certain definitions and asking for amendments, she added that some of the penalties for minor infringements are too harsh, such as imprisonment for up to two years for cyberstalking.

She also argued against Section 34 on the power to manage information systems, which she said gives the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority the power to block any website it deems is carrying ‘objectionable’ or ‘offensive’ content.

This is a serious concern, and readers will be all too aware of how in the past such loose definitions have been used to stifle dissent against the government of the day and to curb the freedom of expression. IT industry experts have also alleged that the draft bill is distorted in focus with a security-related mindset underpinning it.

Further, concern has been expressed that the proposed law fails to provide adequate security to Internet users while at the same time creating heavy penalties for crimes that can be committed unintentionally, such as sending a text message without the receiver’s consent or criticising the actions of the government on the social media.

In short, there is enough to raise very serious doubts about the efficacy of this bill in its current form.

More attention needs to be paid to the critiques against it, with a view to carrying out further modification on the recommendations of experts.

This is a task for the legislators who must resist any attempt to rush it through into law. Right now, Pakistan is getting ready to formulate cybercrime laws; there is a dire need to get them right.

Riyadh meeting

WHERE bringing the bloody Syrian civil war to a close is concerned, there have been a number of false starts. However, the news coming from Riyadh indicates that something of a breakthrough may have been achieved.

At the conclusion of a meeting of Syrian political and opposition factions in the Saudi capital on Thursday, it was announced that the opposition was willing to negotiate with the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Considering the opposition’s refusal in the past to talk to the Syrian strongman, it appears as if the opponents of the Baathist regime have relaxed their position, if only slightly. Also, putting to rest ambitions of regime change — for the moment perhaps — an opposition figure said overthrowing the government in Damascus by force “is not on the table”.

Though Mr Assad has said he is willing to negotiate, he has refused to talk to “terrorists” — a blanket term for all armed opposition groups. While both sides have said they are ready to come to the table, they are also clinging to certain maximalist positions: the rebels say Mr Assad must leave before any political transition, while the Syrian president appears to be selective in who he talks to.

Considering the immense gulf between the two sides such positions are to be expected at this stage, though the rhetoric may give way to compromise in the days ahead.

The Syrian government and opposition should work towards confidence-building measures in the run-up to scheduled peace talks in January.

The most effective CBM could be an immediate ceasefire, with all sides putting down their guns. Additionally, the opposition must clearly state that it will not tolerate any extremist militant group within its ranks, while it should sever links with factions not willing to forego the use of terrorist tactics.

Mr Assad, on the other hand, must realise he cannot rule Syria forever. The transition should be peaceful and democratic, and most importantly, it should be the Syrian people who choose their new government, free from the pressure of all external actors. The civil war has taken a heavy toll on the civilian population, while also creating the space for the rise of the militant Islamic State group.

For the sake of the Syrian people and in order for all those moderate forces inside the country to put up a common front against IS, the government and opposition must work overtime to make the peace process succeed.

Telecom agreement

THE permission just given by the government to communication providers — telecommunication and Internet — to sign agreements with neighbouring countries is a very positive step and should be expanded further.

At the outset, the impact of the permission will be limited as private operators begin developing relationships across the borders, and growth will be constrained by the limited number of people travelling to neighbouring countries, except China.

For example, the permission could extend to providing roaming services to Pakistani cellular users in India or Iran, but the small number of people who use this facility, particularly for travel to neighbouring countries, can only mean little growth.

Also read: Govt allows cross-border communication links

However, the agreement is an important measure to build further contacts across borders. In the days to come, it would be an excellent step to see the permission extended to allow Indian and Pakistani nationals to transit through each other’s airports without a visa.

Expanding ties such as these build durable grounds for greater economic cooperation, which ought to be a shared goal towards which both countries can once again aspire given the thaw in the relations between them ever since that fleeting interaction between the prime ministers of both countries in Paris recently.

Better telecommunication links between Pakistani and Indian providers can also hopefully grow towards greater sharing of each other’s networks for faster speed.

Pakistan’s relative isolation from its own neighbours is a crucial constraint to its growth, and overcoming this is a long-haul process that will be marked by steps of this sort. It will take far more than road links to profitably benefit from an expansion in ties.

Allowing new business models to flourish as the nature of cooperation and connectivity deepens among all neighbouring countries will be crucial to leveraging the opportunities opened up by initiatives such as CPEC, and whatever other regional arrangements that develop between Pakistan and its neighbours east and west.

Let’s hope that this modest initiative is part of a longer journey towards greater regional links.

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