ISLAMABAD: Using its majority, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) bulldozed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) through the National Assembly on Thursday.

Presenting the bill, State Minister for Information Technology Anusha Rehman outrightly rejected calls from the opposition benches to review certain clauses of the bill, which they maintained violated fundamental rights.

It was one of the few pieces of legislation passed by the current assembly that have been unanimously opposed by all opposition parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), but the government refused to heed their assertions.

The opposition’s main criticism was that in its current form, the law would give the executive sweeping powers that could be misused against anyone, which would further curb freedom of expression in the country.

Anusha Rehman claims bill’s critics represent ‘vested interests’; MQM MNA questions IT minister’s motives

The IT minister didn’t stop there, and accused everybody who spoke against the bill — by name — of following “NGOs’ agenda” and taking directions from some foreign elements.

“I know under whose directions this bill is being opposed by the members of the opposition. I am privy to overnight meetings where they [opposition legislators] received shabashi (appreciation) from lobbies whose interests will be hurt with the passage of this bill.

“Should the state care about the online interests of the people of Pakistan, or the few commercial entities that are opposing the bill?” However, she didn’t elaborate whose interests she was talking about.

Without naming him, she also criticized PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto -Zardari for rejecting the bill. “A party leader opposed the bill through a tweet and since then his party’s lawmakers have fallen in line, despite the fact they earlier supported [the bill].”

She said the bill had recently been passed by the PPP-dominated Senate, adding that the party had a different view when the bill was first passed by the National Assembly in April this year.

Defending the bill, she said that while her ministry had taken care of the apprehensions expressed by opposition lawmakers, “we cannot change it on the whims and wishes of a few NGOs”.

“Every day, dozens of complaints are launched by those who are targeted online and there have been cases where young girls have committed suicide, therefore, the government cannot let all this happen just like that,” she said.

Opposition reaction

One by one, opposition lawmakers — who the minister had accused of opposing the bill for ulterior motives — responded to her.

PPP parliamentary leader Syed Naveed Qamar said he and his party had the right to oppose any bill. “Who is the IT minister to decide our party policy and accuse us of following foreign agenda? This is against parliamentary norms.”

Another PPP member Nafeesa Shah, who had doggedly opposed the bill, said: “It is quite surprising that when [the PPP] government presented the same bill, the minister — who was in opposition then — opposed it and has now suddenly become a champion for the regulation of Internet users.”

PTI chief whip Dr Shireen Mazari also took offence at the IT minister’s observations, saying the PTI had opposed the bill under party policy and rejected certain clauses even when it was presented before the house the first time.

Admitting that it was a good bill that involved a lot of hard work, Dr Mazari said the government had made the law controversial just by passing it without a consensus.

PTI parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi requested the government to defer passage of the bill for a few days and get its “remaining lacunas” resolved through mutual consensus.

However, it was the MQM’s Ali Raza Abidi who launched a more scathing attack at the IT minister.

“You are accusing us of following directions from elsewhere; but can you [minister] please tell this house on whose directions you are pushing this bill,” he said.

Salient features

· ‘Recruitment, funding and planning of terrorism’ is punishable with up to seven years in prison and/or a fine, or both. Section 10B criminalises the preparation or dissemination of information that invites or motivates funding, or recruits people “for terrorism or plans for terrorism”.

· Parody or satire-based websites and social media accounts can be proceeded against under section 23 on ‘Spoofing’, which makes it an offence to run a website or send information with a “counterfeit source”. This is punishable with up to three years in prison, a fine of up to Rs500,000, or both.

· Internet service providers (such as PTCL or Nayatel) are required to retain usage data for a minimum of one year. This includes the physical address (in case of fixed broadband connections) or the mobile number (for 3G/4G customers); the customer’s name and date and time of Internet usage.

· The law does not specify which law enforcement agency will enforce it, but that responsibility currently lies with the FIA’s National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C).

· ‘Authorised officers’ of the agency can require anyone to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other device that may be required for the purpose of investigating a crime or offence.

· Courts can order real-time collection or recording of information for a period of not more than seven days, unless an extension is granted by the court.

· Defamation, under sections 18 and 19 of this law, is treated as a criminal offence in the online realm and has harsher punishments than prescribed under the Defamation Ordinance 2002, treats it as a civil matter.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2016



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