ISLAMABAD: A parliamentary committee, on Thursday, approved a section of the electronic crimes bill, allowing investigation agencies to have access to the user data of internet service providers’ (ISP) without prior court permission.

The National Assembly Sub-Committee on Information Technology met to finalise the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, which has been a subject of debate since it was submitted to parliament earlier this year.

The bill has been heavily criticised by the information technology (IT) industry and the civil society, for being too harsh in its punishments, curtailing civil liberties and giving unlimited powers to investigation agencies.

Court would be informed 24 hours after accessing and preserving data

In their recommendations, critics of the bill and some lawmakers advised the government to amend Section 28 (expedited preservation and acquisition of data) and make approval of the court mandatory for accessing data and making access subject to court approval, investigation agencies would be prevented from abusing the law.

But Director FIA Sabir Ahmed and Deputy Director FIA on Thursday vehemently defended Section 28, urging the lawmakers to allow FIA to access and preserve data first and later inform the court, within 24 hours of doing so.

“Going to court for permission is a time consuming exercise and there a chance that evidence would be lost during that time,” Sabir Ahmed said.

PML-N MNA Sardar Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari and PPP MNA Shazia Marri agreed with Mr Ahmed’s arguments, albeit reluctantly.

“Keeping the requirements of investigations in mind, we agree to allow agencies direct access but the law is not yet final. It will be discussed again to determine implementation, when the committee meets again on Tuesday,” Shazi Marri said.

The meeting began on a sour note, with PTI MNA Amjad Khan Niazi walking out for not being included in the subcommittee. While the proposed bill was discussed clause by clause, keeping in view recommendations from stakeholders, all members registered complaints with the Subcommittee Chair retired Major Tahir Iqbal, that they had not been provided with the necessary documents to study the bill.

Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari suggested that no more recommendations be accepted so the law could be finalised.

With only PML-N MNA Farhana Qamar and PML-N Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari present, the subcommittee discussed sections of PEC 2015 to which stakeholders had reservations. Concessions were made to satisfy members and representatives from Ministry of IT, FIA and National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA).

Some terminologies and definitions were changed such as the world ‘intelligence’ was replaced with the word ‘information’.

Section 9, against glorification of an offence and hate speech was passed. Major Tahir Iqbal felt it was necessary to include both accused and convicted in this section.

However, MNA Shazia Marri insisted that Section 9 did not differentiate between the accused and the convicted and this was dangerous.

Similarly, Section 17 regarding hacking into other systems was also approved. Critics had been arguing that this section of the law criminalised creative and ethical hacking in schools, universities and research organisations.

Ministry of IT Member Legal Amina Sohail and Director Legal Nasir Ayyaz argued that the PEC 2015 was in sync with other laws which deal with offences and most definitions and words were copied verbatim from the constitution and the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

Sections 18, 21, 22 and 23 of the bill deal with content on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Uploading photographs without a person’s consent and sending unsolicited text messages were all criminalised under the cyber crime law.

MNA Shazi Marri expressed her disagreement with the language used in these sections as well as the definitions.

“There are some extremely strict punishments proposed. I cannot approve a law in haste which would negatively impact millions later,” she said.

The subcommittee will discuss the bill again next week.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2015

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