Cybercrime Bill wades back into controversy
ISLAMABAD: The much-debated Cybercrime Bill is still generating controversy even after its passage by the National Assembly last month, with the senators recommending the government on Wednesday to revisit its contentious clauses and take the relevant stakeholders on-board. The sub-committee of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications met here with Senator Osman Saifullah Khan in the chair to scrutinise and debate the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill-2016. Cyber crime bill to prevent online harassment Khan said the bill was very important for Pakistan, adding the meeting was being convened to hear and address the concerns of all stakeholders in an effective manner and without any delay. The standing committee had called for a public hearing on the bill and invited all stakeholders, including internet service providers, journalists, members of civil society and digital media companies to give their input.
Earlier, the Senate received a public petition against the bill, calling it against the spirit of freedom of expression and information sharing. Wahaj-us-Siraj, CEO at Nayatel, expressed his concerns over Section 18 of the bill that calls for punitive measures to be taken against anyone involved in the defamation of a person on social media. “Perhaps Section 18 is the most controversial clause of the bill. The general impression is that the government wants to deal with the electronic media and the broadcast media separately” he said. There was already a Pemra Ordinance to regulate the broadcast media, but this law will specifically curb free speech, he informed the committee, adding it basically relates to defamation. Siraj said the section is vaguely written and can easily be manipulated for one’s own vested interests. Moreover, it also places restrictions on freedom of expression, which is the beauty of social media, he added. He further said the authority could target political opponents using this clause.
Ambiguities in Cybercrime Bill Similarly, members of digital rights organisations and the journalist community raised concerns regarding Section 21 of the bill that deals with cyber-stalking. Asad Baig, representing the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said the bill has absolutely no in-built defences for journalistic practices or for public interests. He quoted the examples of journalists working with the data critical to public interests or national security, which could be affected by this law. He also quoted the example of the Panama leaks and said in this case confidential data has been used for purely journalistic purposes. Senator Farhatullah Babar and Senator Shibli Faraz expressed their concerns over Section 28 of the bill that deals with the expedited preservation and acquisition of data in case of a complaint against a person. Senator Babar stated the bill authorises an investigation officer to acquire data from the accused without acquiring any permission from the judiciary. In addition, no protection is given to the accused person to ensure that the data acquired from him will not be used for other purposes, he said. The stakeholders also raised concern over Section 22 that deals with spamming.
Speaking about Section 18, the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications secretary said the bill had already been debated a lot in the National Assembly, adding they would look into the proposals of the committee and the stakeholders. Interestingly, no representative from the PTA was present in the committee meeting. The committee asked all stakeholders to present amendments to be made in the bill by Thursday, so the committee could finalise its recommendations and present them in the Senate in its next session.