ISLAMABAD: The version of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 that was approved by the National Assembly on Wednesday addressed most of the objections raised by opposition parties, but not entirely to their satisfaction.
Members of the PPP and the PTI said that under the law, punishments such as imprisonment for minor offences were still harsh, and some definitions still too vague to meet the requirements of the cybercrime law. They also argued that the bill could be abused by the authorities, and civil liberties could be compromised.
PPP MNA Shazia Marri continued to oppose the criminalisation of ‘spamming’ under Clause 22 of the bill. The clause declares “sending messages without the recipient’s permission” a criminal act.
“This is a minor offence – if it is to be considered an offence at all. The punishment should be a financial penalty [as] deterrence only. But three months imprisonment for sending a simple text is too harsh,” Ms Marri said.
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The amended version of Clause 22 reads: “Whoever with intent transmits harmful, fraudulent, misleading, illegal or unsolicited information to any person without the express permission of the recipient or causes any information system to show any such information commits the offence of spamming.”
She also argued that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) powers to block Internet content were too wide-ranging.
“We are not against the legislation, we just want to make the law simple because it is in our best interest to safeguard our liberty and secure the right of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. There is a need to create awareness on social issues before criminalising actions that are minor in nature,” Ms Marri said.
PML-N MNA Awais Leghari claimed that foreign-funded NGOs intended to derail the cybercrime bill. He said the opposition parties and stakeholders (the IT industry) had sufficient time to deliberate over the bill and give their proposals.
PTI MNA Dr Arif Alvi proposed 51 amendments, of which 46 have been incorporated into the bill. Dr Alvi had suggested the inclusion of the words “mala fide” in every clause, which was replaced with the words “harmful intent”, to the PTI MNA’s satisfaction.
“After the submission of amendments the government should try to incorporate them in the main document if it is serious, to develop a fair law that can prevent cybercrimes but allows ample freedom of expression.
“There are many instances where, without a creative addition of the words ‘mala fide’ intent every act of data or disc repair will bring a person into the ambit of cybercrime. After ‘mala fide’ intent has been described a number of clauses can be improved with this safety feature.”
Dr Alvi also said the words ‘morality’ and ‘decency’ were not defined in the law and asked for them to be removed.
According to IT expert Salman Ansari the bill was not written by technically proficient individuals, and there is room for misuse in the law.
“The definitions are not clear and the punishments are harsh, with months of imprisonments and heavy financial penalties,” he said.
In January 2015, the IT ministry submitted the bill in the National Assembly for voting. However, it was referred to the Standing Committee on IT to address concerns raised by opposition members and stakeholders.
Last September, the cybercrime bill was forcibly cleared by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology, and sent to the National Assembly for final approval without members being shown a copy of the bill. The bill quickly became controversial, and critics said it curtailed civil liberties.
With the National Assembly’s approval, the bill will now move to the Senate, where opposition members said they hope there will be a public, reasonable debate and the bill will be fixed.
“I am confident that the Senate will be in a more comfortable position to work on the bill without pressure from the government,” Ms Marri said.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2016