The Pakistani lawyer and digital rights activist Nighat Dad has been fighting for women's safety on the internet, as well as galvanising opposition against one of Pakistan's most controversial laws, the Prevention of Electronic Cybercrimes Act which became law in August 2016.

Earlier this month, Dad won one of the world's most prestigious human rights awards, the Human Rights Tulip, presented by the Dutch Foreign Ministry, for her defence of freedom of expression.

Her triumph highlights one of the biggest dilemmas facing governments today: how to control citizens who are using the internet to spread information the authorities want to keep under wraps.

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Back on the table

The new Pakistani law has granted the government overwhelming powers to control and block information on the Internet, examine and retain users' data, and punish with fines or jail terms anything that offends "the glory of Islam" or "friendly relations between states".

Anyone found guilty of "recruiting, funding and planning of terrorism" can get up to seven years in jail, but the definition of "terrorism" could apply to something well within a citizen's rights, such as using a Facebook page to organise a protest against the destruction of mangroves by government-aided property developers.

Some regulation of the internet is clearly a desirable thing, and a Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, informally called the Cybercrimes Bill, had been proposed in 2015.

Digital rights groups such as the Digital Rights Foundation, Bytes for All (PDF) and Bolo Bhi, as well as legal and IT experts worked with the government on previous drafts to guarantee the bill protected individuals' privacy and freedom of expression.

Pakistan's cybercrime law leaves too much in the hands of law enforcement agencies and judges who are not well-versed in digital issues, or respectful of the delicate balance between individual responsibility and the protection of individual freedoms.


But the government decided in early 2016 to push through a much harsher version of the bill. The experts' recommendations were ignored and rejected and civilian stakeholders were blocked from parliamentary committee meetings discussing the bill. All this purposefully weakened their voices and the influence they could have had on the bill.

The Prevention of Electronic Cybercrimes Bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and voted into law in August 2016 with only moderate opposition in Pakistan's National Assembly.

The Pakistani Muslim League ( Nawaz) hailed the new law as a triumph of governance, while IT Minister Anusha Rahman said that people who opposed it were working on an "agenda", using the language of authoritarianism to imply that all civil society activists were anti-nationalists.

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The political spin can't hide that the government is likely to wield Pakistan's new cybercrime law against its own citizens to bear down on dissent, criticism and the demand for accountability.

Instead of providing clarity and transparency in matters of digital security, the law takes advantage of grey areas in the legalities of the internet, by hiding behind vague language such as "unauthorised access", "malicious intent" and "spoofing."

This is bound to exploit people's lack of awareness of their constitutional rights, and of the current security situation in the country in order to trample on privacy and freedom of speech.

A different kind of freedom of expression?

Being a new democracy, Pakistanis are not as well-versed in some of its principles as citizens are in Europe or the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in people's understanding - or misunderstanding - of freedom of expression.

Emerging from the shadows of authoritarian rule, many Pakistanis are now slowly beginning to grasp that they too have the right to express their ideas and opinions freely, without fear of government censure, as long as this doesn't harm another person's reputation or character through false or misleading statements, or resort to slander and defamation.

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On the other hand, the democratic government of Pakistan sees freedom of expression not as a right to be protected, but as a threat to their authority. They're unfazed by the silly memes or the political cartoons that mock them daily: A Pakistani way of coping with their excesses that is insignificant to them.

But what they won't stand for is the internet being used to expose their flaws and in some cases their own crimes, especially with regards to corruption and financial wrongdoings.

Pakistani news anchors, whose nightly shows abound with exposes and conspiracy theories about the government and its financier cronies, could find themselves jailed for making episodes available on YouTube; ordinary citizens who share the videos on Twitter or WhatsApp could meet the same fate.

One of the most significant aspects of the new cybercrime law is its lack of protection for whistle-blowers and anonymous sources. According to Haroon Baloch, a researcher with Bytes for All, this makes difficult, if not nearly impossible, "the work of journalists, media, human rights defenders, academia and researchers, who get information via sources".

The vaguer the language and the broader its scope, the more menacing a law becomes. On those grounds, this law is the stuff of nightmares for human rights activists, digital rights experts and IT stakeholders.

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This was made only more apparent when the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's intelligence agency, gained legal cover in October to "take action against crimes breaching national security". Nighat Dad points out that the true intent of the law - to repress opposition to the government - is becoming clear with this new development.

Pakistan is not the only country to struggle with issues of internet freedom and government digital surveillance of its citizens.

Both open western democracies and closed non-democratic countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have faced challenges to authority coming from the internet, which they have dealt with in a myriad of ways.

Pakistan's cybercrime law leaves too much in the hands of law enforcement agencies and judges who are not well-versed in digital issues, or respectful of the delicate balance between individual responsibility and the protection of individual freedoms.

The irony that they have made the internet more dangerous for Pakistanis in the name of safety and security is lost on them altogether.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera