ISLAMABAD: The government’s new cybercrime bill may finally give the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) power to manage, block or remove content on the Internet, an oversight the authority has worked around for nearly a decade.

During a subcommittee meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology on Wednesday, senators and stakeholders took up section 34 of the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, which deals with the “Power to manage online information etc”.

Since 2006, PTA has blocked websites containing pornographic and/or blasphemous content, as well as blogs and social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

But the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganisation) Act 1996 – under which the PTA was formed and from which it derives its authority – does not expressly empower the authority to regulate, manage or block Internet content.

The task used to lie with the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites, which was disbanded by the PML-N government in March 2015.

Now, under section 34, titled ‘Power to manage online information’, the PTA is being given the “power to manage information and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any information through any information system”.

And while the subcommittee did not object to the PTA acquiring these powers, senators and stakeholders insisted the change should come through an amendment to the PTA act rather than the PECB.

Despite the insistence of Committee Convenor Senator Osman Saifullah and PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar, officials from the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) seemed reluctant to consider this alternative and insisted that there was no harm in empowering the PTA through the new cybercrime law.

Earlier, Senator Saifullah had been adamant that the special protections for minors against sexual exploitation or blackmail, enshrined in section 19 of the PECB, be retained.

“This should not be clubbed with anything else because we cannot afford to lower the bar when it comes to minors. We also want to send a signal...many of us are parents and we are aware [of the sensitivities].”

“We can task [the ministry] to explicitly include safeguards that apply to all the clauses, that will be satisfactory,” he said.

However, he was not pleased when MoIT officials told him they had “limitations” and asked the committee convenor to provide them with the exact phrasing of the clause he wanted to insert.

“We think this is the best possible formulation,” Rizwan Bashir Khan, the MoIT additional secretary quipped, prompting Senator Saifullah to ask whether he should wind up the meeting since the ministry was refusing to do its job.

“Didn’t the same happen when you went to the National Assembly? You went in with what you thought was the best possible draft, but amendments were made by members. Now, we’re asking you to do the same,” the convenor said.

The MoIT officials’ continued reluctance led Senator Mohsin Leghari to observe that they were simply “toeing the line that was drawn by the minister”, referring to Anusha Rehman’s stubbornness at a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology held on June 22.

At the time, the minister had – in so many words – said that her ministry wasn’t prepared to budge too much from the National Assembly-approved version of the bill. In short, her message to the senators was that while they could introduce all the amendments they wanted, her ministry would have the final word.

“Her message was ‘Senate ki aisi ki taisi’. That is the attitude we were offended by, this is why we’re being aggressive. Tussi aukhay howo ge tey aisi hor aukhay ho jawaan ge,” he quipped, in Punjabi.

Sensing that something had to give, the MoIT secretary softened his tone, saying: “If you still think this formulation should be changed, please tell is what you would like done. We can put the finishing touches on it later.”

But by then it was too late. Senator Babar told the convenor that he would come up with alternative language for the relevant clauses himself.

Senator Saifullah then chided the MoIT team, saying: “I’m sorry I must insist on this. This is the task the committee is assigning you. All we want is that you explicitly tie in the defences that are already contained in other statutes, into this law.”

He then asked both Senator Babar and Ms Sohail to draft alternative versions of section 18.

Trying to explain the need for incorporating a defamation clause in the PECB, Ameena Sohail criticised the existing defamation ordinance. “How are those laws put into practice? How many culprits have been brought to justice under them,” she asked, before concluding that the problem was “in our investigation system”.

“If there is a weak law offline and a strong law online, all you’re doing is encouraging people to switch mediums,” noted Senator Saifullah.

Although this was the second subcommittee meeting on the issue, most stakeholders and civil society had not prepared alternative formulations of clauses, as per the convenor’s instructions a day earlier.

Wahajus Siraj of the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) told the committee that he would provide them after Eid holidays since his legal consultant, Babar Sattar, did not have time to help draft them at the moment.

Asad Baig of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) was the only one who came prepared with text for a clause that would extend protections to journalists, whistleblowers and others working for the public good.

However, his suggestion did not go down too well with MoIT officials who were in the room at the time.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2016