The government of Pakistan has been long pursuing its aim to police the internet and social media. It has imposed bans on websites, blocked URLs and even passed a cyber crime law that many claim can be used to target any user regardless of his or her intent.
Recently the death penalty awarded to Taimoor Raza, 30, by an anti-terrorism court for posting blasphemous content on Facebook has shaken the internet community. The incident exposes how vulnerable the social media users are and how their expression can be taken as cognizable offence.
The government of Pakistan recently suggested Facebook accounts be linked with users’ cell phone numbers — so they can be tracked using the biometric data associated with cell numbers. It claims that this way fake Facebook accounts could be blocked and risks of misuse of this medium controlled, especially in cases of blasphemous and hate material.
Though the Facebook management has extended support to the government regarding removal of blasphemous content, it has refused to accede to its demand to tie users’ Facebook identities with their cell phone numbers. There was a high level meeting as well between Interior Minister the Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Facebook Public Policy Chief Joel Kaplan to discuss the matter.
At present the government is trying its best to monitor the social media. The internet users are worried they may be punished for someone else’s criminal activity under their account.
Shahid Hasan, Deputy Director Cyber Crime Wing, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) agrees users are quite vulnerable but “a proper procedure is followed to ensure innocent people are not targeted”.
He admits a fake account can be registered within minutes and material can be posted immediately. “It is quite likely for an innocent person to be trapped fraudulently and objectionable content attributed to him. A genuine account is also susceptible to hacking and many a times the owner of the account is not aware of the online activity carried out by the hacker.”
Hasan agrees the nature of this medium is such that there are not enough safeguards against its misuse but adds certain precautions may help minimise risks. “Severe punishments have been prescribed in the cyber crime law to deter unscrupulous elements”.
He says the concerned authorities do not register cases and make arrests on suspicion or after seeing a post. In fact, he says, it has to be established that a particular post has been made by the accused through the device under his use. The Internet Protocol (IP) address and the Internet Service Provider’s (ISPs) data are also secured as evidence. “No case is registered without completing these forensic requirements. Sometimes, the accused are even kept under vigilance for a particular period of time to gather sufficient evidence.”
No doubt the procedure explained by Hasan, if followed, does provide protection to the innocent but one wonders what can be done in case where people take law into their hands and do not bother to verify the allegations. The gory incident in Abdul Wali Khan University where young Mashal Khan was lynched to death is one such example. The charged and misled crowd did not take much time to brand him a blasphemer and killed him ruthlessly. Neither a formal inquiry was launched nor was it established that the posts attributed to him were actually his.
Nighat Dad, Executive Director, Digital Rights Foundation, agrees the hazards pertaining to misuse of social media must be tackled but not at the cost of their freedom of expression as the government wants to do.
The social media, she says, has the element of anonymity that makes it such a popular and vibrant tool of communication and constructive criticism. “It’s ridiculous on part of the government to expect Facebook to comply with it. It was for this very reason that Facebook had to be blocked in China — the biggest country in the world in terms of population. Facebook did forgo huge business revenues but did not compromise on people’s right to express.”
Dad terms Mashal’s murder as one of the most gruesome murders in the country, and fears there can be more violence on the basis of social media posts. “The social media users must not take this lightly. They must regularly check whether any fake accounts in their name are active by typing their name, email address etc in the search box of the Facebook page.”
Dad, whose organisation has regularly held trainings on digital security, expresses very few people are aware of the security features. “Even in cases of account hacking, many people take it easy and just stop accessing the account. The users must report both to the relevant Pakistani agencies like FIA as well as the Facebook authorities. Screenshots of fake accounts serve as good evidence in such cases.”
Asad Jamal, lawyer and human rights defender, is not convinced about safeguards to protect online community. “There can be no remedy in a scenario where people are so full of hatred that they lynch a person to death on mere suspicion and then desecrate his body and even burn it to ashes.”
He adds, “What is being taught and fed into the people’s minds is manifesting in form of such incidents”, continuing that hardly any law enforcing authority personnel, investigators, prosecutors etc have the capacity to deal with cyber crime cases. “Their exposure to computers is limited and they do not even know how to present an electronic evidence in a desired way to the courts.”
It is time for the government to fix these things rather than spying on its own people who are already short of breath in their own homeland, he concludes.