ISLAMABAD: The controversial cybercrime bill, which was passed by the National Assembly in April, has been handed to a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications, which will conduct a public hearing and hold consultations with journalists and other key stakeholders before finalising its recommendations on the proposed law.
But there was very little in Wednesday’s committee meeting to inspire confidence among Internet users, as most of the discussion focused on commercial lobbies and the government’s interests, while the rights of individuals were hardly discussed at all.
Even though most senators admitted that they did not have the technical capacity to hold an intelligent discussion on the bill without inviting input from experts and stakeholders, the civil society and industry representatives who were invited got very little chance to speak.
“No one is against regulation [of cyberspace], but there are several different concerns involved in this issue,” observed Senator Farhatullah Babar. He asked that the committee go over the bill clause-by-clause in consultation with stakeholders and technical experts, warning that legislators would be held responsible if the government were allowed free rein over the Internet.
IT minister dismisses stakeholders’ concerns, says commercial interests always oppose Internet governance measures
Former interior minister Rehman Malik differentiated ‘cybercrime’ from ‘cyber-security’, and advocated the need for a comprehensive data protection law before the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2016 was passed.
“First of all, you must define the rights of each stakeholder. Until you do that, how can you trace violations? Who is the custodian of the data that is being generated in Pakistan?”
“Private conversations are privileged, unless there is a violation of the law. The privacy of the majority should not be compromised for the sake of cracking down on the one per cent [that misuses the Internet],” he said.
He also questioned the IT ministry’s competence to deal with the enforcement aspect of the bill. “Do you have the tools to trace and enforce [this law]?”
“This bill talks about illegal interference, but what about hackers? Hacking attacks won’t just originate from inside Pakistan, they will also come from outside Pakistan.”
Committee chairman Shahi Syed then formed a subcommittee, consisting of senators Osman Saifullah Khan, Ghous Mohammad Khan Niazi and Syed Shibli Faraz, which would consider both the government bill, as well as a similar private member’s bill, introduced by Senator Karim Khawaja.
Committee members mused that the subcommittee should be given specific terms of reference (ToR) so there is no ambiguity about its mandate.
IT Minister Anusha Rehman told the committee that the government was treating ‘cybercrime’ and ‘cyber-security’ as two distinct but inter-related fields.
“It is not the mandate of the IT ministry to draw up a data protection law. If the Senate committee wants one to be drafted, you will have to ask the law ministry,” she said.
However, Senator Babar took issue with the inadequate provisions for data protections in the PECB as passed by the National Assembly. “The law stipulates that an investigation officer may raid my house and seize my data. But what protection do I have from the misuse of that data; how long is he going to keep that data?”
However, dismissing these concerns as “hearsay”, Ms Rehman insisted that all relevant provisions and protections were outlined in the bill. “We have spent more time on this bill than most other laws,” she mused.
Pooh-poohing the role of stakeholders, she said there were only two sides of the Internet security debate: commercial entities and governments. Lumping civil society activists and commercial IT-related firms together, she claimed there were no large Internet-based commercial entities in Pakistan.
“Globally, there are companies whose quarterly revenue is greater than your country’s revenues,” she said, adding that for such companies, Internet governance was a nightmare.
Sidestepping a question about the bill’s effect on the rights of journalists, she claimed that content on mainstream print and electronic media outlets – which were regulated by Pemra – was outside the purview of this law. However, she did not explain how journalists and mediapersons who used smartphones and other web-based tools, would be affected by legislation.
Talking about the dark side of the Internet, she admitted that in Pakistan, cultural values were such that families did not like to report rape or child abuse to the authorities, nor did they want it highlighted on social media. “There is currently no law in Pakistan to curtail the spread of [revenge porn] on social media,” she maintained, adding that the PECB aimed to address these issues.
She also termed criticism of the cybercrime bill “a media trial, propaganda” and claimed that those who were critiquing the law had vested interests.
But Senator Babar pointed out that circulation on media or social media was also how such crimes were brought to the fore, therefore social media’s role in creating awareness shouldn’t be curtailed.
Although several senators suggested that the committee hear from the stakeholders who were invited to the meeting, the minister dismissed their concerns, saying that they had been heard from on several occasions at the National Assembly standing committee level.
She said that stakeholders had been repeatedly asked to provide a clause-by-clause analysis of the bill that incorporated their demands in the correct legal language, but they had been unable to do so.
Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, Fareiha Aziz of Bolo Bhi and Wahajus Siraj of the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, who were also present at the meeting, took issue with the minister’s dismissal of their concerns and maintained that they had apprised the ministry and legislators of their concerns and recommendations – verbally and in writing several times – but to no avail.
They also shared copies of a clause-by-clause analysis of the current PECB with members of the committee; however, the chairman asked them to submit these documents to the committee secretary for formal dissemination.
The meeting was also attended by members of the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights, who were specially invited after Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani had referred the bill jointly for the consideration of both the IT and human rights committees.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2016