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NA committee agrees to re-examine cybercrime bill

May 23, 2015

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The committee asked its members to sit down with stakeholders and correct errors in the PECB 2015.—Reuters/File
The committee asked its members to sit down with stakeholders and correct errors in the PECB 2015.—Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: Heeding the concerns of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of Information Technology (IT) industry stakeholders, the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT has asked its members to sit down with stakeholders from the industry and correct errors in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015.

“The bill has to wait before it’s tabled before parliament. The stakeholders have concerns and after hearing them, it makes sense that we put our heads together again and draft a law that is in the interest of the people,” said committee chairman retired Captain Mohammad Safdar.

He had relented to grant critics of the cybercrime bill a public hearing on Friday. In the last few meetings of the committee, the chairman had been quite firm on the fact that the bill was ready to be laid before parliament. However, following repeated requests from opposition members, he allowed stakeholders one last chance to be heard.

Also read: ‘NA committee must reconsider cybercrime bill’

JAC members were initially stopped from entering parliament premises, but were allowed in on the intervention of PPP MNA Shazia Marri, who walked to the gate and chastised security officials, saying that parliament was not a bunker and guests invited by committee chairman should be allowed to enter. JAC registered their protest with the chairman as well and objected to how most stakeholders such as journalists’ associations, who could be affected by the law in its present state, were not included in consultations.

What was expected to be a quick, 90-odd minute hearing took nearly three hours as the committee heard JAC members raise objections to several clauses in the draft bill. Capt Safdar also made State Minister for IT Anusha Rehman miss her Supreme Court appearance to respond to objections raised, which he believed were more important.

Stakeholders took turns to point out, clause by clause, what should be omitted, amended and included in the draft bill to ensure human rights were not overstepped. The JAC members argued that the 13-page draft was different from the original 44-pager, which included suggestions from stakeholders to safeguard fundamental civil liberties.

Speaking on behalf of the JAC, Bolo Bhi’s Farieha Aziz said that the PECB 2015 in its current form would adversely impact the IT industry, young professionals as well as affecting economic investment in the country and constitutional rights and safeguards.

The JAC urged the committee to omit sections 9, 15, 18, 22, 29, which criminalise text messaging and emailing without the receiver’s consent. They particularly wanted Section 34 omitted, which the JAC believed, “infringed the fundamental rights of citizens, curbed media freedom and gave sweeping powers to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block ‘objectionable’ content on the Internet, such as criticism of the government”.

They also argued that internet service providers such as cafes, offices, universities etc should not be forced to retain data, which would increase their operational costs especially when larger internet service providers were already storing information on their systems.

“Most of these aspects are already covered in the telecommunication and defamation acts of the country,” said Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) Convener Wahajus Siraj. He urged the committee to shift unfettered investigative powers from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to a neutral organisation.

Offering to assist the government in drafting PECB 2015, prominent legal expert Babar Sattar argued that the law did not protect the accused and their right to privacy and dignity. “Provisions in the law are too broad and its language needs to be tightened to remove ambiguities. Punishments are not proportionate with minor acts such as spamming, which the law should not criminalize and that are not offences in real life,” Mr Sattar said.

PPP MNA Shazia Marri also objected to the inclusion of text from Article 19 of the constitution into the PECB 2015, without suggesting how it would guide interpreters of law.

“Section 19 is too vague, like many other ambiguities in the cybercrime law. While it is necessary to keep cyber crime in check, it is also important that provisions in the law are not made so stringent that they impede growth of the industry and prove to be counterproductive,” Ms Marri said. She also held back a note of dissent, which she said she would have handed the chairman had he not been compassionate towards the critics of the bill on Friday.

Pakistan Software Houses Association of Pakistan (Pasha) President Jehan Ara feared that the present draft discouraged research and creativity among students and entrepreneurs.

While PTI MNA Amjad Ali Khan, MQM’s Syed Ali Raza Abidi and PML-N’s Khusro Bakhtyar believed that the bill should not infringe upon fundamental rights, other PMLN members – who earlier wanted the draft to be tabled in parliament – did not object to waiting until the law was ‘flawless’.

State Minister for IT Anusha Rehman also appreciated the committee chairman’s softening his stance and said she wanted members to spend more time correcting errors in the law.

“We own the 44-page document today as much as we did in the past. The committee is responsible for changing it and reducing it to 13 pages. Section 34 of the bill was included by members of the committee and not by the ministry. Today, PTA has sweeping powers given to it by the high court to manage and block content on Internet that it deems offensive. The cybercrime bill curbs those unfettered powers and gives more liberties to people, especially women and children than it takes away,” Ms Rehman told Dawn after the meeting.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2015

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