ISLAMABAD: Criticism on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PEC) as reported in the media is based on poor understanding of the Bill. It is unfortunate that it is being criticised by relying on misconceived interpretation of its provisions. In view of the one-sided views articulated in the news items, including the editorial published in The Express Tribune on April 19 and another article by a staff correspondent published on April 20, it is necessary to put the media debate on the Bill into context and to help the mainstream media inform the general public on this subject with a nuanced balance that it deserves.
Firstly, the notion that the Bill was prepared behind closed doors needs to be corrected. Exhaustive rounds of consultations with public and private sector stakeholders were held. The opportunity for written comment on the draft published on the website during the initial drafting of the Bill after the lapse of the initial Prevention of Cybercrime Ordinance 2009 and the consultations preceding the current round have led to the point of view of all stakeholders being a matter of record. The government was cognisant of the viewpoint of these stakeholders and the original Bill, placed before the house and ultimately the National Assembly Standing Committee was a consensus draft. The current version of the Bill has kept the spirit of the draft with a few adjustments meant to align it with the National Action Plan.
Contrary to the assertions that the Bill leaves room open for tyrannical actions against innocent internet or information system users, there are ample safeguards to prevent misuse. The offences defined in the PEC Bill are not strict liability offences i.e., anything that is done without intention and/or with permission of the owner of the information system or data does not constitute an offence. As far as provisions relating to blocking of access to illegal content are concerned, the same has been incorporated strictly in accordance with Article 19 of the Constitution to ensure that no content is blocked that does not violate the Constitution. The concept of selective treatment of content is not alien to the most liberal jurisdictions, globally. Access to online content has been restricted in many countries including the European Union, the US, India and Australia, keeping in view their peculiar sensitivities. It has been argued that the wording of Article 19 is vague but the superior courts have interpreted Article 19 in plethora of judgments and other interpretations given by any forum may not sustain in light of these judgments. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has the power to manage online content.
The framework for content management provided for in the PEC Bill will only ensure selectively that action can be taken against websites while ensuring that free speech is protected as per Article 19 of the Constitution. Complaints concerning misuse of personal information and pictures, and clauses concerning cyber stalking and protection of personal data have been incorporated in the PEC Bill. In the end, it must be said that the PEC Bill is of critical importance in terms of having a structured legal regime for apprehending the innumerable and ever-increasing number of cybercrimes. The complete absence of a legal framework to regulate activities in cyberspace is not a choice for countries that aspire to use technology to raise living standards.
The PEC Bill shall enable the establishment of a safe cyberspace that is important for the progress of our information technology industry and e-commerce. We believe it is time now to debunk the unfounded myths and let balanced logic be provided to the citizens of Pakistan.
Saghir Anwar Wattoo
Director PR, Ministry of IT & Telecom
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2015.
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