‘Flawed’ cybercrime bill approved

Published April 17, 2015
Of the 20 members of the committee, all 14 PML-N MNAs approved the bill, while five of the six opposition members were absent from Thursday’s meeting.— Reuters/file
Of the 20 members of the committee, all 14 PML-N MNAs approved the bill, while five of the six opposition members were absent from Thursday’s meeting.— Reuters/file

ISLAMABAD: Describing critics of the new law on cyber crime as “a mafia”, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology approved the Prevention of Electronics Crime Bill, 2015 on Thursday.

Apparently reacting to media reports highlighting the flaws in the bill, committee chairman, retired Capt Mohammad Safdar said, “All possible efforts have gone into drafting this law and the committee is satisfied,” before approving the bill."

The half a dozen PML-N members of the committee, who were present on Thursday to deliberate on the draft bill, did not object to the law that has now been laid before parliament. MQM MNA Ali Raza Abidi was the only member who opposed some aspects of the bill.

Members lash out at ‘anti-bill mafia’; critics maintain bill criminalises mundane activities

Of the 20 members of the committee, all 14 PML-N MNAs approved the bill, while five of the six opposition members were absent from Thursday’s meeting. The members had earlier alleged that had not been provided copies of the bill to review.

“I just received a copy. It’s obvious the bill has been approved in haste. Nobody is willing to listen,” Mr Abidi said, explaining how the members did not have adequate knowledge about the Internet, its technicalities and how best to address them.

“If they do not heed the concerns of critics today, it can also affect their children tomorrow,” he said.

State Minister for Information Technology Anusha Rehman responded to the criticism when she explained to the committee that the picture was not as gloomy as painted by the anti-bill lobby.

“The bill protects the interests of foreign investors and offers local businesses a bail out option. It does not hold them responsible for objectionable content placed on the Internet by an individual. It does not criminalise an individual until intent is proven and the bill permits law enforcement agencies to confiscate data and equipment as evidence,” Ms Rehman said as she explained how the government did not want IT businesses in the country to suffer.

However, PML-N MNA Farhana Qamar believed that those who committed cyber crimes should be punished harshly.

“We can also not move forward unless judges are trained in the subject to decide cases of cyber crime. Offences relating to information systems are in line with local laws. The law also binds us to cooperate with other countries to fight terrorism,” Anusha Rehman said.

According to the Ministry of IT, the law deals with hate speech, terrorist activities on the internet and protects critical government infrastructure from hackers.

But PML-N MNA Tahir Iqbal argued that law enforcement agencies should not need a warrant from the courts to make arrests and confiscate data and electronic devices.

“The situation in the country demands immediate action to fight terrorism. Law enforcement agencies do not have time to get warrants and let terrorists win. This is only way to save society,” the former army major said.

The committee also discussed some of the sections of the bill that critics had described as “ridiculous”.

But critics of the Prevention of Electronics Crimes Bill 2015 argue that it is draconian, suppresses civil liberties and freedom of expression besides giving unfettered powers to law enforcement agencies to make arrests without seeking proper permission from the courts.

Internet Service Providers Association (ISPAK) Convener Wahajus Siraj was critical of Section 18, that deals with offences against the dignity of a person. Section 18 states that whoever “intentionally publically exhibits or displays or transmits any false intelligence, likely to harm or intimidate reputation or privacy of a person shall be imprisoned for three years and fined Rs500, 000.”

It also states, “Nothing [contained herein] shall apply to anything aired by a broadcast media or distribution service licenced under Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002.” According to Mr Siraj, this law strangles social media but allows everything to continue as is on television and in print.

“Sharing videos of former Interior Minister Rehman Malik being off-loaded from an aircraft or the Sharif family’s guards beating up employees of a bakery will now be illegal,” he said.

He was also critical of Section 21.1.d, which prohibits “[taking] a picture of any person and display[ing] or [distributing it] without his consent or knowledge in a manner that harms a person.”

Talking about this stipulation, the ISPAK representative asked if uploading a picture of a politician who wears a toupee, without his wig, would be illegal because it could be offensive to that individual personally.

Around the world, parody and satire are protected as a part of free speech. In the landmark Falwell vs Flynt, the US Supreme Court prohibited awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them because reasonable people would not interpret the parody to contain factual claims.

Those opposing the bill’s passage also argue that Section 15 allows regulators to prosecute foreign cellular companies for selling unauthorized SIMs. Section 15 reads: “Whoever sells SIMs for use in cellular mobile phones without biometric verification as approved by PTA, shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years and fine up to Rs500, 000.”

“Around the world, telecom companies are prosecuted when necessary under the terms and conditions of their licence agreements. The government has now added a section to criminalise the selling of unverified SIMs to subscribers,” Mr Siraj said.

Defending the bill, Barrister Zafarullah Khan, who is the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Law Parliamentary Affairs, believed that the language used in the new law on cyber crime was taken from the Constitution.

“Those who challenge it are challenging the Constitution of Pakistan,” he said, explaining to the committee that some of the stakeholders’ concerns were incorporated and others excluded from the bill.

“It is the job of elected parliamentarians to decide what is best for the masses. The draft presented by the so-called civil society and NGOs claiming to be the voices of the people was riddled with loopholes,” Mr Khan said, explaining that the draft bill that is now in the custody of parliament was discussed clause by clause with all stakeholders.

Upon hearing the news that the NA standing committee had approved the bill, the Joint Action Committee, consisting of internet service providers and experts from the IT industry, responded that all constitutional rights to freedom of expression, speech, access, writing and visualisation were under threat of becoming criminal actions under the new bill.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2015

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