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EDITORIAL: The Pakistani state’s continued quest to tightly regulate the digital space has yielded yet another decision marred by inexplicable haste and a complete lack of transparency.

The creation of the National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency (NCCIA) – which replaces the FIA’s cybercrime wing – as a body devoted to deal with offences that come under the aegis of the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act raises serious concerns regarding citizens’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the sagacity of those in power who think that it is actually possible to keep digital media under a tight leash in the modern age without it inviting multiple adverse consequences.

The ostensible role of the NCCIA will be to fight cybercrimes and enforce the strict regulations governing social media websites in Pakistan, something that was previously handled by the FIA. And as was the case with the FIA, the NCCIA is also bound to face allegations of silencing dissent and clamping down on independent voices.

While the government has attributed the necessity of the move to counter online propaganda, rumours and harassment, it should be pointed out that there are laws already present in our statute books to deal with those situations. Forming an entirely new body for this purpose, therefore, appears to be a meaningless exercise that is bound to result in the waste of valuable financial resources in an already resource-starved country.

The government’s decision appears to be the latest in a series of efforts to clamp down on criticism of state functionaries and public office holders, who do not seem to realise that in a democracy – even a highly flawed one – no one can be above criticism.

In fact, for better or for worse, when one is a state functionary or a public office holder, dealing with criticism, both justified and spurious, becomes part and parcel of the job. While conducting of media trials and social media witch hunts cannot ever be condoned, it has to be said that if those in important positions of responsibility – enjoying all sorts of perks, benefits and powers – cannot deal with criticism and independent thought, they may not be qualified to hold on to those positions of responsibility.

One does not need reminding of the Pakistani state’s history of running roughshod over all manner of speech in a bid to clamp down on what it deems to be a harmful speech, with the needless ban on YouTube back in 2012 that ended up lasting for four years being a case in point, as well as the latest restrictions on X.

While there is a need to enhance cybersecurity measures against threats like data breaches and financial crimes, the more frugal option would have clearly been to enhance the capabilities of the FIA’s cybercrime wing instead of going for the significantly more expensive route of setting up an entirely new body.

The government’s decision also indicates its fundamental lack of understanding regarding how the internet works. Trying to control people’s online activities has become increasingly futile given the inherently borderless nature of the internet.

How does the NCCIA propose to go after offenders not residing in Pakistan? Also, with the explosion of the smartphone revolution that has given millions of Pakistanis access to the internet, one wonders how each and every individual case of ‘harmful’ speech would be dealt with, short of going for wholesale bans on websites, which again could prove meaningless given the widespread availability of VPNs and other tools that enable the bypassing of controls on the internet.

For too long, the authorities have largely focused on countering what they deem to be threats, and not enough on upholding of democratic values and fundamental rights. With the ill-thought creation of the NCCIA, this disturbing tendency appears set to continue unchecked.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024


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Tariq Qurashi May 09, 2024 10:40am
All commerce, marketing, banking, finance, trade, shipping, communications, IT, and remote working etc. are done in the digital space. Any disruption has a very high cost for the country.
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