ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly (NA) passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 on Thursday after the Senate's unanimous adoption of the bill – with 50 amendments – earlier in July.

The bill will be signed into law by President Mamnoon Hussain. (Full text of the bill below)

IT Minister Anusha Rehman: "Criticism regarding the bill is baseless as proposed amendments have been included. Non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives are opposing the bill due to a certain agenda."

MQM MNA Ali Raza Abidi: "The government was under pressure to pass this bill using any force necessary."

PPP MNA Naveed Qamar: "The bill will be misused by authorities and government departments."

The 'draconian' bill has been heavily criticised by the IT industry, civil society organisations and rights activists for curbing human rights and giving overreaching powers to law enforcement agencies.

Focus of criticism

  1. Critics say the bill is too harsh, with punishments that do not fit crimes

  2. The bill's language leaves it open to abuse by LEAs, agencies, the government

  3. Recommendations of stakeholders were ignored in the formulation of the law

  4. It restricts freedom of expression and access to information

  5. The offences are too numerous, overlap with other existing laws

  6. The wording of the bill leaves many clauses open to interpretation

  7. The bill specifically can be misused to target journalists’ sources and whistleblowers

  8. Criteria for surveillance is even more open-ended than in the Fair Trial Act 2013

  9. Mechanisms for implementation are missing from this bill

  10. The bill has introduced clauses on cyberterrorism, which is not the subject of the bill

  11. The authority designated under the new law should have been independent of the executive

  12. The authority has been given sweeping powers to blocking and destroy online material, without a court order

  13. It does not adequately differentiate cyber crime from cyber terrorism and cyber warfare


Salient features of the new bill

  • Up to three years imprisonment, Rs1 million fine or both for unauthorised access to critical infrastructure information system or data

  • The government may cooperate with any foreign government, foreign or international agency, organisation or 24x7 network for investigation or proceedings relating to an offence or for collecting evidence

  • The government may forward any information to any foreign government, 24x7 network, foreign or international agency or organisation any information obtained from its own investigation if the disclosure assists their investigations

  • Up to seven years, Rs10 million fine or both for interference with critical infrastructure information system or data with dishonest intention

  • Up to seven years, Rs10 million fine or both for glorification of an offence relating to terrorism, any person convicted of a crime relating to terrorism or proscribed individuals or groups. Glorification is explained as “depiction of any form of praise or celebration in a desirable manner”

  • Up to six months imprisonment, Rs50 thousand or both for producing, making, generating, adapting, exporting, supplying, offering to supply or importing a device for use in an offence

  • Up to three years imprisonment, Rs5 million fine or both for obtaining, selling, possessing, transmitting or using another person’s identity information without authorisation

  • If your identity information is used without authorisation, you may apply to the authorities to secure, destroy or prevent transmission of your information


What Dawn columnists have to say

BABAR SATTAR

In its present form PECB will criminalise conduct that shouldn’t be criminalised, equip investigation agencies and PTA with overbroad and unguided powers that will be susceptible to abuse, and chill free speech without any corresponding augmentation of the right to privacy or dignity.

Laws are drafted not on the assumption that they will be tools in the hands of angels, but by assuming abuse and guarding against it. So is PECB an unmitigated disaster or a mini-disaster? (read in full)


FARIEHA AZIZ

What will be unleashed upon us through Section 34 is a regime that will decide on whim, based on what affects personal reputations and fits personal barometers of morality, what we should or should not say, and what we should or should not have access to. Either entire websites will be shut down over one piece of content without ever knowing when access to them will be restored: Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Instagram have all been blocked at some point or the other in Pakistan. Or, in the zest to try and gain the ability to block, nefarious designs to break through encrypted protocols will be pursued. (read in full)


IA REHMAN

The whole affair has revealed fault lines that should cause a great deal of anxiety to the people.

Pakistan’s lack of expertise in preparing and assessing legislative proposals, which would maintain a balance between the state’s thirst for absolute powers and the citizens’ inviolable rights, is bound to undermine progress towards an equitable rule of law. (read in full)


Editorial

Both China and Saudi Arabia have taken technological and institutional steps to censor the internet that go beyond law and now extend to societal norms, business practices and other areas. Similarly in Pakistan, we may see censorship extend beyond the government’s desire to control information to negatively impact society — eg increased instances of online blasphemy accusations used — as seen in the real world — not only to censor information on the internet, but also to target minority groups and ordinary citizens.

This is not a hypothetical situation but one grounded in the fact that multiple cases of blasphemy charges based on internet content have already occurred in the last two years. The PECB has no answer to the impact of the internet censorship it will bring into law.

It is unfortunate that a lack of internet penetration and thereby an understanding of the internet among the general population and leaders leave the country vulnerable to new policies that once passed will be hard to reverse and damaging to the very people who approved them. (read in full)


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