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NA committee approves 'controversial' cyber-crime bill

Updated Apr 16, 2015 06:28pm
According to the bill, online criticism of religion, country, courts, and the armed forces are a few subjects which will invoke official intervention. ─ File
According to the bill, online criticism of religion, country, courts, and the armed forces are a few subjects which will invoke official intervention. ─ File

ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication on Thursday approved the ‘The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015’, a bill criticised for being controversial and draconian.

The bill is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly.

Today's approval came during a meeting of the committee which convened under the Chairmanship of MNA Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar, and was attended by members of the IT committee and officials of the ministry.

According to the bill, criticism online of religion, the country, its courts, and the armed forces are among subjects which will invoke official intervention.

Minister of State for Information Technology Advocate Anusha Rehman Khan said that the bill is necessary to prevent unauthorised acts with respect to information systems, and provide for related offences, as well as mechanisms for their investigation, prosecution, trial and international cooperation.

She said the objective of the bill will is to effectively prevent cyber crime and contribute towards national security, while providing and enabling a secure environment for investment in information technology, e-commerce and e-payments systems.

“This bill shall also afford protection to citizens which has hitherto not been completely effective, exposing them to the unmitigated threats posed by cyber criminals both at home and abroad,” the bill said.

The bill also includes specific safeguards to balance against these intrusive and extensive procedural powers in order to protect the privacy of citizens and avoid abuse of the exercise of these powers, she added.

According to a member of the standing committee, although Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution has been viewed as a landmark for freedom of expression, the government has incorporated some controversial clauses in the new bill under the pretext of the national counter-terrorism strategy.

The government’s latest bill aimed at regulating Internet usage is tougher, curbs civil liberties and focuses more on moral aspects of Internet use than cybercrime itself, critics say.

Read more: New cybercrime bill tough on individuals’ rights, soft on crime

While Internet Service Providers Association Convener Wahajus Siraj described the bill as “draconian”, Pakistan Software Houses Association Board Member Afaque Ahmad termed it “wrong and senseless”.

“In its current form, the bill is a disaster. It was not made by an expert draftsman with adequate knowledge of the nuances of language, a comprehension of technicalities and technologies, someone who understands international laws. This is a hard combination to find,” Mr Ahmad said.

Mr Ahmad spent three years drafting what he calls “the original bill” alongside a group of IT experts and lawyers. He said that the government had sidelined all the relevant stakeholders from the process of drafting the law.

Earlier this month, however, Anusha Rahman explained that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 had been sent to the National Assembly Standing Committee with proposed amendments after being extensively scrutinised by a special review committee.

The minister explained that the special review committee was constituted on the direction of the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT and Telecom and consisted of technical and legal experts as well as MNAs.

She said the committee had analysed the bill clause by clause in order to make it more compatible with the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism and extremism.

Dawn editorial: Cybercrime bill controversy

Scratch through the surface of the Bill, and there is much that is controversial.

Critics say that a government-led sub-committee put in time to modify the draft that had originally been chiselled by the IT ministry and industry stakeholders and activists — the latter now holding that they were excluded from the process of finalising the draft.

What now stands to be tabled in the National Assembly, they say, is a loosely worded piece of legal drafting that not just betrays a poor grasp of the technical aspects of digital communications and the internet, but also contains several deeply problematic clauses that are open to misinterpretation and may be used as crutches for censorship and the suppression of views a government finds unpalatable.

Consider, for instance, Section 31, the most jarring of several examples.

Under this section, the government could block access to any website “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality....” Who is to decide what undermines the integrity of Pakistan, or its relations with other states?

Who exactly are the “friendly foreign states”, and where would countries with which Pakistan has fluctuating ties such as the US be placed? Critics also refer to several other technically flawed and vague definitions that pose threats to ordinary citizens.