ISLAMABAD - The National Assembly yesterday passed the ‘controversial’ cybercrime bill amid strong reservation of main opposition parties, rights groups and industry stakeholders who say the ‘draconian law’ would curb freedom of expression.

Named as ‘The Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill, 2016’, the legislation was recently passed from Upper House of parliament unanimously with over 50 amendments before being referred to the National Assembly.

The government says the law would safeguard citizens against harassment and security threats, and criminalise things like online child pornography.

But, critics say it would curb free speech and give the government the power to conduct mass surveillance and criminalise satire.

Opposition Senators had also strongly criticised its certain clauses, saying the law carrying too harsh penalties could be grossly misused by the law enforcement agencies and governmental authorities against the innocent citizens as they could be labelled offenders at whim while exercising their right to free speech on cyberspace.

While voting for the legislation in the Senate PPP Senator Sherry Rehman said getting opposition proposed amendments incorporated in the bill was the best deal they could secure as the government had enough votes to get the bill passed in joint sitting of the Parliament.

Strongly opposing the bill, PPP’s parliamentary leader Syed Naveed Qamar yesterday said that there were certain objectionable clauses in the bill which would affect innocent persons.

Starting the debate, he said it was a draconian law, which is violative of fundamental rights. “It is certain that the draft will not stand up to scrutiny of the court of law.”

The PPP leader said it was incomprehensible as on the one hand the government talks about the child rights while on the other hand it takes such steps. “None of us will be spared if this law is used in undemocratic way,” he warned.

PTI’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that although there was a need of this bill but government should revisit it thoroughly. “Government should pass this bill with the support of opposition,” he added.

MQM’s Ali Raza Abidi said there were many loopholes in the bill and certain sections of it were totally unacceptable. He also objected to eight of 51 amendments to the bill passed by the Senate, saying, “Still there was a need of 20 percent amendment to the bill.”

Abidi said, “Youth will be the prime victim of the new law as it is not necessary that the public will have the knowhow about ethics and laws of social media.” The bill is criminalising and demoralising the population, he added.

PPP MNA Nafisa Shah said she was feeling ashamed and embarrassed for being part of the parliament which was going to pass such bill as was usurping fundamental rights.

PTI lawmaker Ali Muhammad Khan said the youth of the country was taking greater interest in political matters and this was good for the country, but this bill will discourage them to debate political issues on cyberspace.

He pointed out that Section 9 of the bill is criminalising criticising politicians on the Internet or seeking information about them. He demanded that “government should remove all the politically motivated sections of the bill”, expressing fear that even if not by the current government, the law might be used against opponents by the future rulers.

But Minister for Information Technology Anusha Rehman said, “This bill will not bar any political parties to hold public meetings.” Defending the legislation, she said that over three dozen amendments of opposition parties had already been incorporated.

“Are members opposing this bill on somebody’s whims?” she asked, adding that objectionable pictures of young girls are being upload on the Internet which needed to be checked.

She further said that parliament had removed certain reservation of different segments of the society on this law after taking them on board and through public hearings.

Farieha Aziz, director of the Bolo Bhi digital rights group, told AFP news agency a section intended to tackle cyber-stalking was drafted in sweeping language that would allow public officials criticised on social media to claim they were being harassed.

It was of particular concern, she said, that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority would be allowed to ban speech considered "against the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan". "This should not be the task of an executive body, this is a matter for the courts," she added.

Gul Bukhari, an activist with the campaign group Bytes for All, said: "It authorises the state to exchange the private information of citizens with foreign governments or agencies without recourse to any judicial framework."

Defending the bill, IT Minister Anusha Rahman told AFP: "We have built in safeguards against misuse. It is not as sweeping as it has been made out to be - for most offences, the government will still need to go to court to get a warrant against offenders," adding the only exceptions were child pornography and cyber-terrorism.

She further said that "dishonest intent" was also a requirement for an offender to be punished.

The statement of objects and reason says ‘the legislation provides new investigative powers hitherto unavailable such as search and seizure of digital forensic evidence using technological means’. The introduction of this bill will effectively prevent cyber crimes and shall also contribute to the national security.

Free speech campaigners in Pakistan have long complained of creeping censorship in the name of protecting religion or preventing obscenity.

In November 2011 the telecommunications authority tried to ban nearly 1,700 "obscene" words from text messages, which included innocuous terms such as "lotion", "athlete's foot" and "idiot".

Punishments

Under the ‘Chapter-II of offence and punishment’ of the bill, 23 offences related to internet have been made punishable.

As per the clause ‘Unauthorised access to information’, anyone gaining unauthorised access to any information with dishonest intention shall be punished with imprisonment for up to three months.

The clause ‘Unauthorized copying or transmission’ says a person gaining unauthorised access to any information or data through Internet shall face up to 3 months imprisonment or Rs50,000 fine or both.

Another clause says, a person gaining unauthorised access to any infrastructure information system or data shall face up to 3 years imprisonment or Rs1 million fine or both.

A clause about ‘interference with critical infrastructure information’ says if anyone with dishonest intention infers with or damages, or causes to be interfered with or damaged any part or whole shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to seven years.

About ‘terrorism-related cyber offences’, ‘a person glorifying an offence relating to terrorism or activities of proscribe organisations or individual groups on cyberspace shall be punished with up to 7 years imprisonment or Rs10 million fine or both.

About ‘Hate speech’, the bill says if anyone prepare/disseminates information through any information system shall be punished with imprisonment.

Another clause says that unauthorised issuance of SIM cards will invite up to three years imprisonment or Rs500,000 fine or both.

It further says if anyone making or supplying device for use of internet offence, tempering of communication equipment, unauthorised interception, offence against dignity of natural person, offence against modesty of a natural person or minor, cyber stalking, spamming and spoofing through internet have made offences with different punishments under this law.