ISLAMABAD: The cybercrime bill that caused uproar among civil society activists when it was passed by the National Assembly, was presented before the upper house on Tuesday. The draft law – titled ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016’ was presented by the state minister for information technology, Anusha Rehman.

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani referred the draft law to the Senate Standing Committee on IT, but Senate Opposition Leader Aitzaz Ahsan asked that the bill should be referred to the Standing Committee on Human Rights as well.

Since there is no such provision in the rules, the Senate chairman noted: “What we can do is request the IT committee to invite members of the human rights committee to their meetings”.

At the same time, opposition senators assured civil society activists – who have been up in arms over what they call a ‘draconian’ law – that they would seek to address stakeholders’ concerns before the bill becomes law.

Lawmakers promise to address stakeholders’ concerns; activists worried draft law puts too many powers in executive’s hands

At a civil society consultation on the cybercrime bill, which was also attended by parliamentarians from various parties, digital rights activists attempted to consolidate their opposition to the law.

Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights group, said: “This law will place extraordinary powers in the hands of government and the executive, and nearly anyone can be booked and heavily punished over merely sending an SMS.”

“One of the most serious issues in the bill is that there is no appellate forum in it,” Ms Aziz said, adding, “All powers are in the hands of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).”

She mentioned several instances in Turkey, where intellectuals were imprisoned for forwarding a caricature of the Turkish president.

Speakers at the consultation also said that the stipulations in the draft bill contradicted the concept of right to information and all powers, from investigation to decision-making, were directly and indirectly in the PTA’s hands.

It was also stressed that the mainstream media would to be affected by the stringent cybercrime law as a lot of news items are streamed on mobile phones and on the web.

Speakers said that it was not clear which agency or agencies would have access to users’ data, therefore granting sweeping powers to the likes of the FIA, IB and the ISI would infringe civil liberties.

“Apart from heavy fines and long prison sentences, the draft law authorises the confiscation of the data by the investigation agency – and it is not yet clear who that agency will be,” warned Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation.

She said that the Section 29 of the draft bill demanded that internet service providers should maintain records of data traffic for up to one year, which would increase their costs.

“Eventually, the PTA will become like PTV – with the powers to regulate internet traffic. They could charge any political opponent based on a personal enmity or treason charges,” she added. Lawmakers said that despite their opposition and concerns, the bill was bulldozed through the National Assembly. MQM’s Ali Raza Abidi – who had been quite vocal against certain clauses of the bill – said: “incidentally, even the amendments and suggestions that we forwarded were not considered by the minister for IT.”

However, Senator Faratullah said that there had to be a balance between freedom of information, privacy and the powers to investigate and implement laws.

Shahi Syed, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on IT, and committee member Senator Rubina Khalid also promised civil society members that they would be invited to attend the public hearing of the bill at the committee stage.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2016


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