As the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) sailed through the National Assembly on Wednesday April 13, the year-long debate regarding right of free speech and cyber protection reignited.
The tale of the cybercrime bill has been a long and exciting one, full of opposition and struggle. When Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rahman presented the bill, she seemed to have recognised the effort gone into drafting the bill and stated the law was a result of “months of brainstorming” and promised it “safeguarded civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.”
It is true that the Bill passed on Wednesday bore little resemblance to the more severe version presented in January 2015. Some of the suggestions made by several opposition leaders seemed to have found their way into the slightly improved draft. Nevertheless certain ambiguities and concerns remain.
It is clear that the new bill is an upgrade but fails to dispense its major criticism of hampering free speech. There is also a need on part of the authorities to spread awareness on the interpretation of some vague clauses before the bill is approved. There is no reason for secrecy.
For instance, Clause 5 of the Bill that targets any offence that aims to interfere with information system or data transmission may create genuine confusion for internet users. The clause does not make clear what type of interference can be deemed offensive. Under this clause, activists feel, ethical hackers may also be liable to prosecution since their entire job revolves around hacking into a computer system in order to test or evaluate its security.
Another regulation of the Bill that echoes the government’s unbalanced stance talks about offences against modesty of a natural person and a minor. It further says that it “includes videos of a natural person in sexually explicit conduct.”
Now it isn’t clear if this means someone can report Qadeel Baloch — suffice it to say that according to the cybercrime bill she can face some issues.
The clause on cyberstalking
The government’s efforts to control privacy invasion can clearly be seen as the clause categorises any communication that is “obscene, vulgar, contemptuous or indecent” as offensive, but in the same clause the distribution of a photo or picture without the consent of a person is punishable. This is where the intent clause kicks in.
In another clause, the government’s looking to address the issue of “offence against dignity of a natural person”. Ameena Suhail, member legal at the IT ministry, said that the “dignity of a natural person was introduced to guard against tendency to spread false information about a person, made much easier and at a much faster speed in the current age of information technology.”
She further clarified that the need to keep a check on internet information was because no social media regulator exists, however, the purpose is to discourage spread of false accusations which intimidate or harm a person.
“Hence, a correctional measure for prescribing certain limits to freedom of expression over social medial has been put in place.”
To give the IT minister her due share, the Bill is not all bad. There are certain aspects that are helpful and necessary for a constantly evolving digital landscape. The problem of the Bill lies with its contradictions and its failure to be clear. Efforts need to be made to spread awareness over the bill.
Next time you use social media, just give the cybercrime bill a read. You might be in for a surprise.
The writer is a staff correspondent
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2016.
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