The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2016 has been adopted by the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and will now be presented before the upper house. The PECB was approved with certain amendments amid concerns that it was a means for the government to curb civil liberties and freedom of expression. The government, however, states that it wants to use it as a tool to “protect the common man”, which it believes has been a target of cyber threats and terrorism. Digital rights activists feel that the Bill envelops a broad range of activities under its ambit, while the government believes that it would curb criminal behaviour in cyberspace and regulate the largely unregulated social media that has gained solid traction in recent years.
There is no doubt that some sort of regulation is needed for cyberspace, which has been plagued by serious crimes and where privacy breaches have become all too common. Cyberspace has also been used to promote hate speech, and has become a breeding ground for fraud and forgery. Given this, the government set about finalising a draft of the PECB last year, which was rejected by almost all stakeholders given the curbs on freedom of expression it presented, its vague language and, in some cases, clashes with other laws in the country’s Constitution. With the amendments made by the Senate panel, there has been an attempt to safeguard rights that appeared to have been trampled upon in the original Bill. But have all problems it initially presented been solved? Not really. Activists feel the government has still left loopholes in the Bill, which would enable it to curb whatever activity it deems criminal. The government has admitted that the Bill still has loopholes, but says that courts would intervene if the legislation is being unjustly implemented. This is not the right approach to devising an important piece of legislation that can have far-reaching implications for fundamental rights. The cybercrime bill should aim to find a balance between curbing hate speech and protecting civil liberties; currently, it tilts towards curbing speech in its entirety. This needs to change. It is clear that the Bill in its amended form is still not an ideal piece of legislation. Parliamentarians must take into account the criticisms it is still receiving.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2016.