The draft cybercrime bill was forcefully cleared by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology on Thursday and sent to the National Assembly for final approval without showing the members the copy of the bill.
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 had become controversial as critics believed it curtailed civil liberties. In January 2015, the Ministry of IT submitted the bill to the National Assembly for voting. However, it was referred to the standing committee to address concerns raised by the opposition members and stakeholders from the industry.
Opposition leaders and local NGOs believed the proposed bill was too harsh and curbed human rights besides giving abusive powers to law enforcement agencies. Representatives from the industry argued that the bill would harm their businesses.
According to critics, the proposed bill criminalised minor activities such as sending text messages without the receiver’s consent or criticising government actions on the social media punishable with fines and long-term imprisonments.
When the committee met on Thursday, a copy of the final draft prepared by a sub-committee was put only before retired Capt Mohammad Safdar, the chairman of the committee.
From the moment the meeting commenced, Mr Safdar pushed the members to vote so that it could be sent to the parliament without a further delay.
However, PPP MNAs Shazia Marri and Nauman Islam Sheikh objected that they could not approve the draft bill until they read the final copy. PML-N MNA Awais Ahmad Khan Leghari also registered a complaint with the chair that like all other members he too did not get a copy of the draft bill to go through it.
To pacify the members, Mr Safdar said he had seen the copy of the draft bill which was sufficient and ready to be sent back to the National Assembly for final approval.
Shazia Marri complained to the chairman that it was wrong for members to clear the bill without seeing the finally drafted copy.
However, Mr Safdar was interested in wrapping up the meeting. “About 70 to 80 per cent recommendations have been accommodated in the bill. Questions can be raised later in the National Assembly. Members can request the speaker to send it back to the committee if they are still not satisfied,” he maintained.
Nonetheless, Shazia Marri and Awais Leghari pushed Mr Safdar to at least go through some of the undecided provisions in it to make it complete before sending it to the parliament.
But opposition members lost that fight too when the chairman allowed them one more chance to make amendments because none of their recommendations made during the meeting were accommodated.
The committee reduced the penalty for cyber stalking from two years to one year though Shazia Marri believed that the penalty for such an ‘insignificant’ act was still too harsh and wanted it removed from the law completely.
The committee approved Section 21 dealing with the illegal sale of SIMs, which Shazia Marri argued was already addressed in the telecommunication act and should not be duplicated. The MNA’s concerns with Section 34 remained unsettled. This section gives the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the powers to block objectionable content and websites.
Shazia Marri maintained that access to information was a fundamental right and its responsibility rested with the state. “Giving powers to an authority to block access to information is not just,” she said.
“I don’t know what they are celebrating when members have not even seen the draft copy. The cyber crime law will affect millions and there are loopholes in it which law enforcement agencies can abuse. We do not approve provisions of the bill that are against people’s rights,” she added.
The standing committee spent six months discussing the draft bill, inviting comments from the opposition members and recommendations from stakeholders. The chairman had formed the sub-committee under MNA Tahir Iqbal to deliberate over sections to remove objections.