After much back and forth, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 was passed by the National Assembly on Wednesday.
How open to scrutiny the okaying of the proposed legislation was, and perhaps how interested lawmakers are in this piece of legal drafting, can be gauged from the fact that of the 342 members of the house, only 30 members were present.
Now that it has been passed by the lower house of parliament, it is still not free from controversy.
Critics continue to warn that while some of the reservations against the harshest penalties and clauses in the proposed legislation have been tweaked, there is still far too much that can make mischief, be used to curb free speech and dissent, and turn transgressions stemming from the lack of awareness into offences punishable by long jail terms and heavy fines.
Continuing criticism of the bill through its various iterations has been that it has been framed/written by individuals unfamiliar with the myriad ramifications and realities of the digital world.
Thus, as pointed out by PPP MNA Shazia Marri, Clause 22 criminalises ‘spamming’, or “sending messages without the recipient’s permission”.
While the amended version of the clause is somewhat improved, it can nevertheless be used, she argues, to impose a three-month jail sentence for simply sending a text.
Similarly, IT expert Salman Ansari continues to point out that definitions in the draft bill are vague, yet the punishments are harsh. And indeed, what is the public to make of, for example, a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment and a hefty fine for “creating a website for negative purposes”?
There is no argument that hate speech has become a pressing problem, whether online or otherwise.
Yet, anyone even slightly familiar with the ways in which dissent was suffocated in Pakistan in earlier decades will accept that creating disputes and spreading hatred on the basis of religion or sectarianism are broad enough to be mischievously interpreted.
It is indisputable that the country needs a framework of laws regulating cyber activity, where the problematic use of technology ranges anywhere from playing a role in militancy and terrorism, to no less agonising transgressions against individuals, such as data theft, blackmail and account hacking.
Yet Pakistan’s track record in regulating the online world has so far been ham-fisted and has betrayed a lack of understanding about how it works; witness the crude move against YouTube.
This requires that legislation in this area be subjected to the very highest levels of scrutiny.
Further, when and if the bill becomes law, it will become the basic building block on which other pieces of legislations and amendments are raised. Pakistan needs to take the time to get it right. The draft is to be debated in the Senate. There is still time to address the problems.