ISLAMABAD: The Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology adopted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 on Tuesday, which will now be laid before the upper house during the ongoing session.

While referring the bill to the Senate, Committee Chairman Shahi Syed appreciated the contribution of senators such as Kareem Khawaja and Farhatullah Babar from PPP and Shibli Faraz from PTI.

“Protections for the rights of the common man have been given priority in this bill. Public hearings were granted and all stakeholders were consulted – lawyers, civil society and representatives from the IT industry – to address their concerns and incorporate their recommendations,” the ANP senator said, adding that anything that had been left out could be amended later.

A similar exercise – public hearings, stakeholder consultations and input from lawyers and IT experts – was carried out by the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT when it was considering the bill earlier this year.

Even though the committee also held several meetings on the law in attempts to improve it, it was hastily approved by the government, without sharing details of final version of the bill which was to be sent to parliament for further debate.

Representatives from local NGOs and civil society continue to believe that most of their concerns have not addressed in the draft law.

They believe that the proposed cybercrime law curbs freedom of expression and civil liberties, rendering minor acts such as sending text messages without the permission of the recipient, into offences. The law also gives excessive powers to investigation agencies such as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

“The PECB has been adopted in a hurry. There is still a lot to discuss before PECB becomes law,” said Asad Baig, executive director at Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD).

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Information Technology argues that most concerns raised by stakeholders had been addressed. State Minister for IT Anusha Rehman maintained that local NGOs were demanding that people should be allowed to self-regulate, when such a thing was not possible.

“The draft bill has been the property of the parliament since January 2015. The parliamentarians discussed every single aspect of the proposed bill. The ministry has welcomed suggestions and incorporated recommendations they felt were necessary to protect the rights of the people,” Ms Rehman said.

She explained that the proposed law dealt with issues such as forgery, Internet fraud, attacks on critical data infrastructure and child pornography, offences that were not addressed in existing laws.

Senators were content with the decision taken on Tuesday, saying that the law had been discussed threadbare, down to the last point, before it was adopted. They maintained that the proposed cybercrime law was drafted keeping in mind the capacity of institutions, the national interest, economic needs and the rights of the people.

“Parliamentarians have been the strongest critics of this law and their concerns were communicated in this thoroughly-deliberated document. It may not be a perfect document, but amendments can be made later to improve the bill,” said PTI Senator Shibli Faraz.

However, he hoped that the capacity of local courts will be improved to adjudicate technical cases that were related to the IT sector.

HRCP letter

Seeking support to prevent PECB from becoming a law in its current form, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has written an open-letter, saying that the adoption of the law would have immense ramifications for the practice of constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms of expression, privacy, human rights and democracy in the country.

HRCP appreciated the committee for listening to the concerns of civil society on the matter, but said that the government seemed more interested in questioning the motives of civil society rather than appreciating their efforts.

One of the main concerns was with various offences, already defined under the Pakistan Penal Code and other laws, which the commission believed were redefined under PECB, often in conflict with other laws and almost always with harsher punishments. Several sections include vague and general formulations and contradictions. It is important to remove such provisions from the law, HRCP said in its note.

Section 22 on Spamming, which HRCP maintained was not seen a as cybercrime around the world, made small business owners vulnerable, who might be dependent on sending marketing emails and SMS to publicise their services.

Similarly, Section 10 required extensive redrafting, said HRCP. “It deals with an area related more to cyber security than cyber crime. In its current form, the provision does not properly define cyber terrorism and provides life sentence and Rs50 million in fines for offenses primarily related to illegal access and misuse of critical data.”

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2016