A bill for the protection of whom?
After the public outcry that was raised when details of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 (PECB) first became public, the government finally decided to hold public hearings on the contentious issue. Those criticising the legislation have been given a chance to provide input for improvements. Had the government adopted this process at the very initial stage, it would have avoided delays and the embarrassment.
The history of cyber legislation in Pakistan is quite controversial. During the Musharraf era, a Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance 2007 was presented before parliament but it could not gain approval. A similar attempt was made in 2009 when parliamentarians did not approve a draft on cyber legislation, terming it against freedom of expression. The PML-N, then in opposition, was at the forefront in foiling these consecutive attempts.
The substantive clauses of the present cybercrime bill have already been questioned by information technology experts, lawyers, lawmakers, members of civil society and the media. The criticism deterred the government and it postponed tabling this draft before parliament. With the government now allowing some public scrutiny, it needs to ensure that this must not be seen as an exercise for public consumption.
The draft legislation only ended up creating apprehensions among citizens, and not criminals. Many aspects of the bill are technical in nature and the government must take on board the relevant experts during and after the legislative process for better implementation. There is no doubt that we need legislation to keep a check on the activities of criminals. The offences included in the internationally accepted Budapest Convention on Cybercrime can be examined for this purpose. Through this, we can become part of a global alliance and would be able to seek international assistance against such offences.
The present draft of the PECB 2015 is a combination of vague definitions and contradictions. The process of preparation itself was questionable and indicated possible malicious intent to restrict the freedom of citizens. There is a need to omit clauses that already exist as laws, to avoid the repetition of offences as defined in the Electronic Transactions Ordinance 2002, the Pakistan Telecommunication Act of 1996, the Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933. It is also not a good idea to incorporate the entire Article 19 of the Constitution in the draft.
The government needs to clarify the aim of the legislation. If it wants to target criminal activities and electronic fraud such as banking fraud, cyber encroachment etc., no one would think of obstructing this mission, but the initial draft did not give that impression. There is also a need to see the second part of the bill related to freedom of expression and civil liberties. Again, it is not a good idea to curb civil liberties and freedom of expression under the garb of security enhancement, while including clauses that make criticism of the government difficult. It seems we are doing everything except what is supposed to be done. If the PTA can take down thousands of ‘obscene’ and ‘immoral’ websites and block ‘objectionable’ pages on social media, then what prevents it from blocking websites of terrorist organisations through which they recruit people for their cause? This is something that the cybercrime bill must address.